Battling child abuse

By Lauryn Smith

Organizations across the country are taking action in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania State University sex scandal.

One such organization, the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, is attempting to raise awareness of how to prevent child sexual abuse. The nonprofit organization is conducting bi-monthly media receptions in hopes of gaining support for CCAC’s mission.

The Penn State scandal has reminded people that sexual abuse against kids is not unusual, and that perpetrators are commonly people who have a close relationship with the child, such as a neighbor or family member, said CCAC’s Executive Director Char Rivette.

“I don’t want people to be afraid of everybody, but you do have to make sure your kids feel 100 percent comfortable telling you anything about what’s going on in their lives,” Rivette said. “This is a teachable moment.”

According to a report study distributed by CCAC, there were 19,699 reports of abuse in Chicago last year and the numbers remain consistently high, Rivette said.

This year, the organization has had a 20 percent increase in the number of children in need of help. It has not been confirmed whether the rise in reported sexual abuse cases is because of increased awareness of the issue or if it is simply a blip, so workers plan to keep a close eye on the trend, Rivette said.

It can be difficult to recognize when a child has undergone sexual abuse, according to Rivette. The signs vary from child to child.

Typical things to look for include changes in behavioral patterns. If a child begins to act anxious, develops unusual fears, displays changes in sleeping patterns or acts in ways that are not age appropriate, it is time to start asking questions, Rivette said.

“Ask kids questions when [they] start to talk about things, like secrets and special relationships with certain adults and alone time with adults [who] aren’t their parents,” Rivette said.

Sometimes kids refrain from telling an adult because they fear that no one will believe them, as proven by the length of time it took for the Penn State case to reach authorities.

Stop It Now! is another resource for reporting sexual abuse. The nationwide organization distributes information and guidance to adults so that they can effectively help others confronted with sexual abuse.

According to Deborah Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now, people sometimes report abuse that happened up to 30 years ago.

“We have a lot of people who call us and tell us that this is the first time that they had ever talked to anybody about having been abused,” Rice said. “For the first time, they get unconditional support for what they went through and get to hear about resources that could possibly be helpful in dealing with the aftereffects of having been sexually abused.”

This year marks the CCAC’s 10th anniversary of providing services to Chicago-area children who were sexually abused and their families. Founded by former mayor Richard M. Daley in 1998, the organization opened its doors in 2001 to provide a coordinated investigation of abuse reports, as well as medical examinations, mental health services, referrals to other services and general support.

In the past, abused children were forced to relive what happened to them multiple times while telling their story to parents, social workers, police, investigators, doctors and counselors.

CCAC simplified the process by coordinating forensic interviews with the child and a medical exam in a single location to put the kids at ease, Rivette said.

Ana Correa, CCAC family advocate manager, works directly with the kids to ensure that they are comfortable and understand what is going on.

Some kids come in feeling like they are in trouble while parents come in feeling like they did not do enough to protect their kids, Correa said. “They are in a better place by the time they leave,” she said.

If you see any signs of possible abuse, call the Chicago Police Department or the Child Abuse Hotline at (800)-422-4453. CCAC receives every allegation of sexual abuse in the city.