Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Sexual Abuse Survivor Speaks Out

In response to my blog article about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, Nancy Smyth commented that people stand by and do nothing, at least in part because they don't understand the tremendous impact that sexual abuse has on children.  Then I received a response from a child sexual abuse survivor who spoke about the impact from personal experience. So I decided to share a survivor's perspective to help us all understand a little more about why it is so important to take action to stop sexual abuse. I am grateful to the author for giving me permission to feature this description of what a child sexual abuse survivor can go through.

"As a trauma victim, I would just like to say we have to do something about sexual abuse in this world. People can't ignore it and turn their heads. It just keeps it going more and more.  "You see, even though they hid it years ago it still happened. The worst part is the abuser  says "if you tell, no one will believe you" and  "this isn't bad what I'm doing; I am supposed to do this to you" and "it's all your fault; you're the troublemaker or you wouldn't be in this position."  So you keep it quiet for as long as you can, thinking you're the bad one, not the abuser. Trying to keep everything to yourself until it has you in such a state that your stomach constantly hurts, you become very nervous, and you have fainting spells."

"Then you get enough nerve to tell but you are too young to know the words, so you make up your own words for it. You tell a police officer that these people are "bothering" you.  Well, all the officer does is to tell them to stop bothering you because he doesn't know what "bothering" means and the abusers made it seem like it was only a joke - all in fun. Then another day you get brave again and you tell a teacher. Now keep in mind you're just in first grade at the time. The teacher just says "that's a very big  accusation you're making on these people; they can get in big trouble for  this. Are you sure you want to say this about them?" Well first of all you have no idea what a big accusation is, except that its a really, really big word. Then you hear the word "trouble" and that is just what the abuser told you from the beginning:  "If you tell, no one will believe you and any way they would say it's your fault; you're the troublemaker." So you just freeze, not wanting to cause more trouble, just wanting to take back anything you said about the abuser at all. And keep silent hoping you won't get hurt again."

"The next thing you do is just try to forget about it. You go through life saying  "ok no one found out about it today so I'm good."  You continue doing this every damn day of your life until you get so scared and sick and put it so far out of your mind you don't even know it happened. Until years later when you start having flashbacks and eventually wind up in therapy. If you're lucky like me you get a good therapist. You start to trust someone with your secrets for the first time in your life.  Then  you remember more about the abuse and you immediately go into denial. Then you go back to believing it happened, but you tell yourself  "it was my fault; I was a troublemaker."  So the abuser still wins because here you are blaming yourself and acting as if the abusers are innocent and it was your fault. So you spend a lot of years in therapy with PTSD*, until the whole thing clicks and with EMDR** you are able to get yourself back together.  But unfortunately the more times the abusers abuse you, the more things trigger flashbacks and you get confused and blame yourself all over again. Then sticking with therapy you get to the point with EMDR where you realize "hey this really isn't my fault." 

"So yes, it is uncomfortable to talk about but just think of how uncomfortable it is for a child or a teen to go through it. Day after day having to keep it a secret until they're sick to their stomach or passing out. Then later on after you blanked it all out of your mind and you don't want to believe it, then it comes back to haunt you.  You question if it's real because you think you would know if it happened. But you don't know until you face it again. PTSD causes a lot of suffering up into adulthood. Sometimes you can't even work if it  is so traumatic that you keep forgetting where you are and feel like a child being abused all over again, right in the middle of the workplace.  So basically your life is ruined but the abusers are so damn sneaky they get away with it."

"Just like Penn State--from what I think I understand, people knew it was happening and didn't care to stop it.  Well how about we stop it NOW!  How many more victims do we have to ruin?  How many victims can't even go to work because no one wants them flipping out in the workplace?  How many victims can't even go to people's homes visiting or to the store because they don't know if they will be triggered, and are actually afraid to go out by themselves?  How many more children, young teens, even young adults are going to be victims of sexual abuse?  Why?  No one wants to talk about it.  Like Andrea said, they turn their  head, don't believe it or simply change the subject.  And if  the victims don't get the correct help they go on forever trying to keep it quiet.  Feeling ashamed, blamed, or hurt so bad they think suicide could be  in order.  Is It fair?"

*Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when traumatic experiences from the past keep intruding on the present.  There are three categories of symptoms:
 Re-experiencing symptoms:
     •Flashbacks; reliving the trauma
     •Nightmares about the trauma
     •Intrusive recollections of the trauma
Avoidance symptoms:
     •Avoiding reminders of the trauma
     •Emotional numbness; hypoarousal
     •Blocking out memories of the trauma
Hyperarousal symptoms:
     •Hypervigilance; always in fight/flight mode
     •Exaggerated startle response
     •Anger outbursts
     •Sleep disturbances
 **Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an eight phase therapy method developed by Francine Shapiro to treat trauma. Traumatic experiences can be so overwhelming that the ability to process them and gain perspective is blocked. These traumatic events can get stuck in the nervous system the way they were initially perceived, with the same images, sounds, smells, tastes, and body sensations and resulting emotional reactions, urges and beliefs.  EMDR stimulates the memories and allows the brain to digest them, determining what is useful and necessary and discarding the thoughts, feelings, sensations and physiological arousal that are no longer needed.  New information is linked to the original events and related beliefs, feelings and body-based symptoms using bilateral eye movements, sounds or sensations.  This is believed to jumpstart stalled adaptive information processing  in a manner similar to what takes place during REM (rapid eye movement)  sleep.  Traumatic experiences are reprocessed and put in perspective so that they no longer interfere with day-to-day living. For more information about EMDR, see my new website http://EMDRNJ.com

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lessons from the Syracuse University Sexual Abuse Scandal

The latest in the sports program sexual abuse scandals is the resurfacing of a 2005 allegation against Syracuse University Associate Head Men’s Basketball Coach Bernie Fine about sexual abuse of a minor, now 39, dating back to the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Syracuse Police have now opened an investigation into the matter.

In a letter to Syracuse University Alumni dated 11/18/11, Chancellor Nancy Cantor stated:

"On hearing of the allegations [in 2005], the University immediately launched its own comprehensive investigation through its legal counsel. The nearly four-month long investigation included a number of interviews with people the individual said would support his claims. All of those identified by him denied any knowledge of wrongful conduct by the associate coach. At the end of the investigation, as we were unable to find any corroboration of the allegations, the case was closed."

The problem with this is that in matters of sexual abuse there are rarely any witnesses since it is done in secret and even when there are witnesses, they are often  afraid to come forward because of the powerful position of the abuser, and for those who are victims,  shame, self-blame and fear of not being believed .

Chancellor Cantor went on to explain:

 "The dilemma in any situation like this, of course, is that—without corroborating facts, witnesses or confessions —one must avoid an unfair rush to judgment."

While it is understandable that the administration would not want an unfair rush to judgment, it ends up being an unfair bias against the victim since it is rare for sexual molesters to confess and rare to have physical evidence to corroborate a victim's disclosure.  There are procedures that experts  use to evaluate the disclosures of accusers to determine the validity of a sexual abuse allegation.   Experts should be consulted when organizations are evaluating a sexual abuse complaint.

On November 27, Chancellor Cantor sent out another e-mail to the entire SU community:

"Tonight, in the wake of troubling new allegations that emerged in the media today, I am writing to let you know that Bernie Fine’s employment at the University has been terminated effective immediately... Frankly, the events of the past week have shaken us all… Like the media review of the case a few years earlier, no other witnesses came forward during the university investigation, and those who felt they knew Bernie best could not imagine what has unfolded." 

The troubling part of this is the implication that during the university investigation, the impressions of "those who felt they knew Bernie best" were taken into consideration.  Unfortunately, pedophiles can be expert at befriending and endearing themselves to people and appearing beyond reproach.  

We must educate the public about the dynamics of pedophiles and other sex offenders so that they will have more than impressions to guide them to help decide when to take action.  According to Darkness to Light, an organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, "in more than 90% of sexual abuse cases the child and the child's family know and trust the abuser."*   Given this statistic, we must not make decisions about who can be trusted with our children based solely on our impressions.

Stop it Now, as part of its efforts to prevent child sexual abuse, has tip sheets,
"Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children" http://www.stopitnow.org/behaviors_watch_adult_with_children and  "Signs That an Adult May Be At-Risk to Harm a Child" http://www.stopitnow.org/signs_adult_risk_harm_child.  One way we can all take action is to share these tip sheets with our family, friends, colleagues and clients.

 If you know of other  resources to educate the public about sex offenders, please share it with us.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections on the Penn State Sexual Abuse Scandal and a Call to Action

The Penn State scandal is bringing much needed attention to the problem of child sexual abuse in our society.  Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D., Executive Vice-President of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence, pointed out in her recent commentary that "the reality is that these crimes flourish because of an attitude of societal denial, aversion, and looking the other way."*

Child sexual abuse makes people uncomfortable. As a trauma  therapist who has specialized in treatment of survivors of child sexual abuse for over 25 years, I have seen this first hand. When I worked in a sexual abuse treatment program (for children age 3-18) and told people what I did for a living, some would look uneasy, others would change the subject, still  others would say that they couldn't believe it was as prevalent as was reported. One such person insisted that she would know if any of her family and friends had been sexually abused. She said that if 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused  before the age of 18 (these are old stats, more recent studies indicate it may be even higher), then some of her close circle must have been sexually abused.  Since she was convinced that was untrue, the stats had to be inflated.  Years later, she approached me at a gathering and told me that she found out that a relative had been sexually abused and that it must be more frequent than she wanted to believe.

Stephanie Dallam, PhD, a researcher with the Leadership Council, said  "adults who are in a position to help the child ,or notify appropriate authorities, fail to act" and "this lack of action by others convinces the child that the perpetrator is all powerful and that no one cares about his or her pain and suffering."* It also makes them doubt their own right to be uncomfortable and have control of their own bodies.  This stops many from speaking up. I have worked with hundreds of adult survivors of child sexual abuse and many did not tell anybody until they entered therapy as adults.

 Our society subjects children to all sorts of unwanted touch.  When Aunt Sophie pinches your child's cheeks  and you laugh it off, you are teaching your child that it doesn't matter  if she is uncomfortable with the way someone is touching her. At the very least it is a mixed message; you teach them they have a right to say no to unwanted touch…unless it is Aunt Sophie.

 Steve Brown of theTraumatic Stress Institute said: 

One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is --what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action when they either have direct information that abuse has occurred or, more commonly, just an inkling that something might not be right…. WHAT prevents us from speaking out, not ignoring what we see, paying attention to these gut feelings, checking them out, talking with a friend or colleague about them, and ultimately taking action to alert the proper authorities? **

He went on to point out that we don't want to believe that so much sexual abuse is committed by people the victim knows and  trusts. Many people are so worried about falsely accusing someone and tarnishing their image that they convince themselves they must be wrong or block it out of their minds. He also pointed out the fear of social rejection for accusing someone who is seen as a fine, upstanding citizen.

Sigmund Freud is the most famous example of this. He discovered that many of his patients were sexually abused and that this was a major source of their  problems .  When he began to report this to his colleagues, he was disbelieved and shunned.  As a result of this, Freud reexamined his conclusions and decided that his female patients were actually fantasizing about being sexual with their fathers and that it wasn't really happening. He set back awareness of the reality of sexual abuse 100  years.

As a society, we all have an obligation to protect children and we all share the responsibility of challenging the status quo. Children deserve for us to do more than give lip service to our concerns about abuse. We need to take action! Here are some links to organizations that are doing just that:

  • Stop it Now! mobilizes adults, families and communities to take actions that protect children from sexual abuse to prevent them from being harmed in the first place. Their website has resources for children, parents and professionals regarding child abuse prevention including The Nine Questions Parents Need to Ask When Selecting a Program for their Child. http://www.stopitnow.org/9questions Their  online helpline is for anybody who is worried that a child might be getting abused but is not sure and doesn't know what they should do about it. http://www.stopitnow.org/
  • The Centers for Disease Control wrote a guide, Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations, to assist organizations in setting policies and procedures that can protect the youth they serve from sexual predators. Bring this information to the youth organizations that your children participate in! http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pub/PreventingChildAbuse.html

  •  The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence is a nonprofit independent scientific organization composed of scientists, clinicians, educators, legal scholars, journalists, and public policy analysts who are committed to providing professionals and the general public with accurate, research-based information to help strengthen society's commitment to actively protect its most vulnerable members.  http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/

  • The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse. The Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who can provide assistance in 170 languages. The Hotline offers crisis intervention, information, literature, and referrals to emergency, social service, and support resources. All calls are anonymous and confidential http://www.childhelp.org/pages/hotline.  ChildHelp is a national movement to end child abuse whose goal is to "create awareness, public involvement and a widespread outcry against the terrible injustice of cruelty toward children." To join them in the fight against child abuse, go to their website and become a member:  https://donate.childhelp.org/page/contribute/National_Membership
 Join, donate, volunteer--don't just talk the talk; walk the walk! Take a stand! Get involved! Together we can make a difference.  I welcome comments and suggestions about other ways we can advocate for change. If you know of other resources, especially outside the U.S., please share them with us below.