Above: Jamie Lee, left, program director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of South Central Michigan, and Lead Forensic Interviewer Caitlyn Hayes-Cheng talk about their work at the center as yellow lab Shayne looks on. The dog is available to lend support to children describing sexual assault during forensic interviews conducted at the center.
How officials handle these cases with care is explored below.
by Julie Riddle
Hundreds of Jackson County kids show signs of being sexually assaulted every year, say the people responsible for listening to those kids’ stories.
At the Children’s Advocacy Center of South Central Michigan, trained forensic interviewers talk to about 30 children a month, following up on referrals from teachers, medical workers, counselors, and other mandated reporters. Interviewers carefully elicit information about possible sexual assaults those children may have endured at the hands of strangers, acquaintances, or even ― and often ― people they know and trust.
Officials credit the child-centered practices at the Children’s Advocacy Center, which opened in 2011, with providing an environment that has led to a more than doubling of local reports of child sexual assault in recent years.
More such reports is a good thing if it means families or others feel safer coming forward, said Jamie Lee, program director at the center.
When Lee joined the CAC as a forensic interviewer a decade ago, staff conducted about 150 interviews a year. That number increased until, in 2018, interviews peaked at 347 children, Lee said. This year, the center’s staff handled 37 interviews in May alone. An expected decrease in reports over the summer hasn’t yet materialized, Lee said.
Some children they interview know the behaviors they report are wrong. Others have experienced abuse so long it’s normalized, she said.
Recent Jackson court hearings have included multiple-decade sentencings of people who sexually assaulted children. Many such assaults don’t end up in the courtroom, however.
As upsetting as reports of sexual abuse of a child may be, responding to that abuse requires figuring out and doing whatever will help each child heal, truly “putting the kid in the middle,” Lee said.
SEX ASSAULT REPORTS UP
The rapid increase in referrals to the Children’s Advocacy Center mirrored a 63 percent increase in Jackson County reports of sexual assault to police between 2014 and 2018, according to Michigan State Police data. (More below)
Not all referrals to CAC interviewers result in a report to the police, and police data doesn’t necessarily reflect incidents referred to the CAC. But police have noticed an uptick in reports of alleged abuse of children in recent years, according to Christopher Boulter, deputy director of support services at the Blackman-Leoni Department of Public Safety.
Sexual assaults reported to that police agency more than doubled from 14 reports in 2014 to 36 in 2018. The vast majority of those reports involve children, said Boulter, who pointed to the presence of the Children’s Advocacy Center as one reason people feel more confident in reporting suspected assault.
Before the establishment of the CAC, children might have had to repeat their story to a counselor, a police officer, a social services worker, a nurse, and others. The repeated storytelling re-traumatized the child and potentially elicited inaccurate information, Lee said. Now, trained forensic interviewers question children one time to learn whether a sexual assault may have happened.
Police, medical professionals, representatives of the prosecutor’s office, and others who need information from the child observe the interview remotely and can ask questions via the interviewer. The coordinated approach minimizes the times a child has to retell a traumatic story while ensuring those responsible for responding to the possible assault have the information they need to proceed, Lee said.
If the child’s responses indicate that what appeared suspicious was only a misunderstanding, “that’s a great outcome for all,” Lee said.
Too often, though, interviews produce evidence of actual sexual assault, she said.
In the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the abuser. Many reports come not from within the home but from someone who knows the child and sees concerning signs, Lee said. She worries many children never reach her interviewers because parents or others close to the child don’t want to report suspected abuse, fearing the impact on their family.
Others may hesitate to report signs of sexual abuse because they can’t believe the possible perpetrator could do such a thing.
“People who abuse children are not dumb,” she said. “They know what they’re doing. They know how to choose and groom kids. And they know how to lie.”
A quarter of the cases the CAC handles involve children older than 10 sexually abusing other children, Lee said.
While adult offenders often won’t change their patterns, research indicates those behaviors can be effectively addressed if caught early ― a strong argument for vigorous response and treatment for young abusers, she said.
TALKING ABOUT IT
Last month, a judge sentenced to a combined 62 years in prison two Jackson County men, Solomon Snellenberger and Herbert Hill, each alleged to have sexually assaulted multiple children.
Last week, Michael Baxter was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually assaulting Jackson children in the 1990s. And, earlier this year, Jackson man Bryant Shepherd was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for sexually assaulting at least six children while producing child pornography.
Only a small percentage of forensic interviews, even those indicative of sexual abuse, result in criminal prosecution and sentencing. The people deciding whether to levy charges have to weigh not only the provability of the accusation but also what’s in the best interest of the child ― and that doesn’t always involve the court, Lee said.
Many abused children most desperately need someone to listen, without being upset or dismissive, as they share what happened to them, she said.
Parents or other caregivers can arm children against sexual predators by talking to them about “OK secrets” vs. “not-OK secrets,” giving kids the right names for private body parts instead of cute nicknames, and teaching children that those parts are just for them ― even if those conversations are hard, Lee said.
Once, many people avoided talking about sexual abuse of children. Society has lost some of its fear of that conversation, and that increases the chances the crime can be stopped, Boulter, at Blackman Township, said.
Jackson County police recently helped introduce a program to the state to better protect children impacted by sexual assault and other trauma. Under the Handle With Care model, a police officer who encounters a child exposed to domestic violence, a crash, a shooting in the neighborhood, or another traumatic situation sends the child’s school a confidential message including the child’s name and the simple message, “handle with care.”
That small amount of information helps school workers respond appropriately when a child’s behavior changes, giving the child a better chance of eventually being okay, Boulter said.
Caring for hurt kids takes everyone making such efforts, a collaborative looking-out for those who can’t look out for themselves, he said.
It takes a village to raise a child, Boulter said.
“We’re all that village,” he said. “We’re all that community, trying to make sure that our kids are safe. They’re our future, and we’ve got to look out for them.”
SIGNS OF POSSIBLE SEXUAL ASSAULT
According to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, signs that a child may have been sexually abused include:
* Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics
* Keeping secrets
* Not talking as much as usual
* Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior
* Regressive behaviors or resuming behaviors they had grown out of, such as thumbsucking or bedwetting
* Overly compliant behavior
* Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age
* Spending an unusual amount of time alone
* Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe
* Unexplained bleeding, bruising, or blood on the sheets, underwear, or other clothing
* Change in personality, eating habits, and interest in school and friends
* Excessive worry or fearfulness
* Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches
* Nightmares or fear of being alone at night
* Self-harming behaviors
RAINN also offers the following as signs an adult may be hurting a child:
* Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life
* Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships
* Makes up excuses to be alone with the child
* Expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development
* Gives a child gifts without occasion or reason
* Restricts a child’s access to other adults
To talk to someone about suspected child sexual abuse, call 855-444-3911, the state’s centralized number for reporting child abuse and neglect, to be routed to the correct local agency for follow-up. Callers do not need to have all the information and can remain anonymous. Or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
For information about the Children’s Advocacy Center of South Central Michigan or for guidance in facilitating a conversation with children about sexual assault, call the CAC Victim Advocate at 517-867-0843.