What is child sexual abuse?
A central characteristic of child sexual abuse is the dominant position of an adult (or between two minors) that allows him or her to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. This includes acts such as:
- Sexual Acts with a Child: penetration, intercourse, incest, oral sex, sodomy.
- Child Pornography: using a child in the production of pornography, such as film or magazine
- Exposing a Child to Pornography: (movies, magazines, internet)
- Violations of bodily privacy: forcing a child to undress, spying on a child in the bathroom.
- Luring a child for sexual liaisons: Through the internet for sexual purposes
- Exposing a child to adult sexuality: showing sex organs to a child, forcing a child to watch adult sex acts, group sex
- Child Prostitution/Sexual Exploitation: using a child to perform sex acts with others
- Communicating in a Sexual Manner: Either through phone, letter, or Internet.
Every SIX minutes, a child in the United Stated is sexually abused.
“It won’t happen in my family.”
- 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before age 18.
- 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 18.
- 1 in 5 children are solicited sexually while on the internet.
“I live in a great neighborhood. This wouldn’t happen here.”
- Only 10% of abusers are strangers.
- People who abuse children look and act like everyone else. They often go out of their way to appear trustworthy to gain access to children.
- 34% of victims are abused by family members.
- Another 59% are abused by someone they know and trust.
“My child tells me everything. They would certainly tell me if they were abused.”
- Over 30% of children never disclose their abuse to ANYONE.
- The younger victims may not realize their victimization as sexual abuse.
- Understand why a child does not tell:
- Most abusers are manipulative and will confuse the child as to what is right or wrong.
- The child may have been threatened not to tell anyone.
- Most children are ashamed of the abuse.
- Children are often afraid to disappoint their parents and may feel they have done something wrong.
While there is no one true indicator that can tell you if your child has been sexually abused, there are often warning signs that your child may exhibit. In some cases, there may be no outward signs of abuse beyond what a child will hopefully tell you.
- Nightmares, trouble sleeping
- Sudden mood swings/unexplained anger or rebellion
- Fear of certain people or places
- Frequent stomach illness or headaches with no identifiable reason
- Redness, rashes, bleeding, or swelling in the genital areas
- Pain at the genitals, anus, or mouth
- Frequent urinary tract infections
- Sexualized behaviors with toys, pets, or other children
- New words for private body parts
- Behaviors of a younger child: bedwetting or thumb sucking
- Loss of appetite
Children's Cove and other community agencies offer services to help children and non-offending family members overcome the effects of trauma. Children react differently depending upon their age, nature and extent of the abuse suffered, support from others and their relationship with the offender. The single most important factor affecting the child’s recovery is the level of support the child receives from a parent or caregiver. It is that simple. If you do everything you can to support your child, the chances of recovery are much greater. If you feel torn between loyalty to your child and loyalty to the offender, find a professional to help you sort it out immediately. (Remember that the victim is your child. The abuser chose his/her actions.)
The following are a few guidelines to help in a situation where your child has disclosed sexual abuse:
- Encourage your child to talk freely about the abuse
- Do not be judgmental
- Tell them it is not their fault
- Assure your child they did the right thing in telling you
- Avoid making promises to your child
- Show that you understand and just listen
- Assure them they will be talking to someone about the abuse who will keep them safe.
- Thank your child for being so honest and brave
How caretakers sometimes feel when abuse is reported
When abuse is reported, parents sometimes feel as if they are on a roller coaster of emotions. This is normal. The report can effect your life in many ways, and it takes time to adjust. Following are some of the common thoughts and feelings that parents may have. You may have one or more of these, or you may move from one feeling to another.
Your first reaction may be to not believe or accept the possibility that your child has been abused. Or you may believe that the abuse did occur but that no real or lasting harm was done to your child. Parents often experience denial because it is too overwhelming to accept that the abuse occurred and that there will be after-effects. For some people, it takes time to overcome denial and face the realities of abuse.
At times, you may feel angry with yourself for not protecting your child. You may feel angry with the perpetrator for what he/she did. You may even feel angry with your child. Be honest about your feelings and share them with a trusted friend, relatives or support group.
You probably do not know what to expect and you may feel that things are out of your control. Some parents may fear that their child will be taken away from them. Speaking with Team members will help you address these concerns and have information about what to expect in your situation.
Lack of Assertiveness.
You may feel invisible and think that there is nothing that you can do to help your family’s situation to improve. Team members will help you learn what you can do to change a situation and how to take appropriate action.
Shock, Numbness, Repulsion.
You may have memories of being abused as a child, which may lead to shock, numbness and repulsion for the new situation that you now find yourself in. Memories from the past may surface to add to your distress. If so, you may need to seek counseling for yourself to aid you in dealing with these issues so that you are better able to assist your child now.
You may feel that what has happened to your child is your fault, that there was something you could have done to prevent the abuse from occurring, or that you should have somehow "sensed" that the abuse was happening. The perpetrator is responsible for the abuse, not you and not your child. The best thing for you to do is to support your child and learn all of the things that you can do to make things better. Reading this booklet is a good first step.
Hurt and Betrayal.
It is normal to feel hurt from the loss of your child’s innocence. You may also have lost a spouse, partner relative or friend if that person was the perpetrator. It is natural to feel betrayed by a person that was close to you and your family when they have caused injury to your child. It is important to take time to grieve for these losses.
Some parents believe that the offender turned to the child because their relations with him/her were not adequate. It is important to learn the dynamics of abuse in order to realize that sexual relations with an adult partner do not affect a person’s likelihood to abuse or not abuse children.
Fear of Violence.
You may have fears that the offender will try to harm you, your child or your family. Express these concerns immediately to your local police, DSS workers and Team members. There are many possible steps that may be available, including restraining orders to help prevent such from happening.
Loss of Privacy.
You may be concerned that others in your community or neighborhood will hear about what has happened to your child. The investigation of child abuse is performed in a confidential manner, and no one involved in the case will communicate any factual material to anyone other than involved Team members. Your child’s name will not appear in the newspaper. You should use care in what you tell others while the investigation is on going to prevent complicating or confusing it in any way.
Fear of Drug or Alcohol Abuse.
You may be afraid that you or a family member will abuse drugs or alcohol because of the stress, or that one of you may have a relapse to an old addiction. If you need help, tell a Team member, the Family Service Coordinator or seek out a recovery center.
Confusion: Why Didn't My Child Tell Me?
It is not uncommon for the child not to tell his/her parent about the abuse. Children are often aware that such news will upset their parent, but do not understand that the parent would not be angry with them for the abuse occurring. Sometimes the abuser has threatened the child with harm, with responsibility that the abuser will get in trouble if the child tells, that a parent or loved one will be mad at them for disclosing, or that the child will be "taken away" from their parents. Even young children feel protective toward their parents and refrain from doing or saying anything that will upset or anger that parent. Reassure your child that the fact that they told someone was a very brave and important thing for them to do.
How to act toward your child
Provide safety, love and support. Let the child know it is okay to cry or be upset or angry. Make sure your child understands that it is not his or her fault. Don’t coach or pressure your child to talk about things. Give them the time and the space that they need. They will talk when the time is right for them.
Some things you can say that will really help your child:
I believe you. I know it’s not your fault. I am so proud that you told, that was a very brave thing to do. I am sorry that this happened to you. I will take care of you. I am not sure what will happen next. Nothing about YOU made this happen. It has happened to other children too. You do not need to take care of me. I am upset, but NOT at you. I am angry with the person who did this. I am sad. You may see me cry. That’s all right. I will be able to take care of you. I am not mad at you. I do not know why he/she did it. He/she has a problem. You can still love someone but hate what he or she did to you. You are not to blame for anything.He/she did the bad thing, not you.
Some things you can do:
- Return to a normal routine as soon as possible.
- See that your child receives therapy as soon as possible. Trying to ignore the problem usually causes more difficulties and will not make the problem go away.
- Find help, counseling for yourself and your family. You do not have do it all yourself.
- Teach your child the rules of personal safety. Tell them what to do if someone tries to touch them in an uncomfortable way.
- Be careful not to question your child about the abuse. If you do, you could jeopardize the case in court against your child’s abuser. Specially trained professionals will interview your child to obtain the necessary information without harming the case or further traumatizing your child. If your child wants to talk about it, listen and be supportive, but do not probe.
- Avoid discussing the case with other victims or their families.
- Never coach or advise your child on how to act or what to say to professionals or investigators. This could seriously damage the case and confuse and upset your child.
- Avoid the suspect. Have no contact with him/her.
- Your child may need an extra sense of physical security. Stay close, assure your child that you will keep them safe. Understand their needs or unusual requests for things like nightlight's, leaving the bedroom door open, and a need for physical closeness to you.
- Remember to give attention to your other children. Explain to them that they are ok, that something bad has happened to the abused child but that you will keep all of them safe.
If you feel your child is a victim of sexual abuse or neglect or your child has disclosed sexual abuse or neglect:
Contact your local police department or the Massachusetts Department of Social Services
Child at Risk Hotline: 1-800-792-5200
For more information on DSS go to www.dsskids.org
Massachusetts Law (Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 119 section 51A) defines the term "mandated reporter." Under this law the following are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse or neglect:
- public safety professionals, including firefighters and police officers
- most medical personnel, including physicians, nurses, medical and hospital personnel involved in care or treatment, psychologists and dentists
- most public and private school personnel, including teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and school psychologists
- most mental health professionals, including social workers, allied mental health professionals, drug or alcohol counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers
- many court professionals, including probation officers, the clerk/magistrate of a district court and parole officers
- other people who regularly deal with children, including day care workers, foster parents or any person paid to care for or work with a child
- allied human service professionals
- clergy member, ordained or licensed minister, leader of any church or religious body
- person performing official duties on behalf of a church or religious body that are recognized as duties of...clergy, ordained or licensed minister, or leader of any church or religious body
When Must a Mandated Reporter Make a 51A Report to DCF (formerly DSS)?
Any person who is a mandated reporter is required to file a report of suspected abuse or neglect if s/he has "reasonable cause to believe that a child under the age of 18 is suffering from physical or emotional injury...including sexual abuse, or from neglect."
Who Else Can Make a Report of Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect?
Even if you are not mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect, you may save a child from further harm if you report your suspicions to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families' Child-at-Risk Hotline.
Oak Bluffs Police
West Tisbury Police
Facts about the Investigation
The basic steps of an investigation of child abuse:
- Someone reports a suspicion of abuse to the authorities, either law enforcement or the Department of Children and Families(DCF). Many professionals that interact with children, including teachers, doctors, and police officers, are required to report any suspicions of child abuse. DCF cooperates with the law enforcement community by notifying the police and the District Attorney’s Office of such reports so that an investigation may begin.
- The child will be interviewed. The interview may take place at Children’s Cove, a child advocacy center. The interview will be conducted by a specially trained child-interviewing expert. The interview will take place in a child-friendly room, with child size furniture and furnishings. The interview will be monitored by the police, DCF and other interested parties such as medical personnel behind a one-way mirror. This procedure allows the child to be interviewed only once and not repeatedly by each agency. The group of professionals involved is called the SAIN (Sexual Abuse Intervention Network) Team. If a child is unable to be interviewed, the case could be put on hold until the child is able to be interviewed. This determination would be made by the SAIN Team, the parents and other professionals (such as therapists.)
- Specialized medical examinations will be conducted if necessary.
- The police and DCF will continue the investigation, interviewing other witnesses, including the alleged offender, if possible.
- When the investigation is complete, the various involved group of professionals will decide how to manage the case. Involved professionals could include the District Attorney’s Office, doctors, police, social workers and mental health professionals.
- DCF will review their investigation and decide upon a plan for managing the case.
- The District Attorney’s Office will review the investigation results and determine whether or not sufficient evidence exists to begin a criminal action against the alleged offender.
The purpose of the medical exam is to:
- Ensure the health and safety of your child,
- Reassure the child that everything is ok with their body,
- Diagnose and treat medical conditions related to the abuse,
- Document significant physical and forensic findings.
What to expect:
The exam will be conducted on-site by a Nurse Practitioner with special expertise in the examination of abused children. A general head to toe physical exam will be conducted, including inspection of the genital and anal areas. The Nurse Practitioner may use a colposcope to assist with the exam. The colposcope has a magnifying devise and a camera to allow optimum visualization of scars, injuries and to ensure accurate documentation and interpretation of the physical findings. The exam is generally not painful. No shots or blood tests are administered. If there is a concern about STD’s (infections that can be transmitted by sexual activities) a small swab may be gently inserted into the child’s throat, anus or vagina, much like a culture for strep throat.
Expect the exam to take about one hour.
What to tell your child:
It is best to prepare your child for the examination prior to coming for the appointment. Honest and simple explanations are the best. They will be coming to see a Nurse Practitioner who will be checking them to make sure they are healthy, much like a well child exam in their regular pediatrician’s office. Everything we do will be explained to the child in detail before anything is done, including a demonstration of how the colposcope works. They will be allowed to have a person of their choice in the exam room with them. The exam is not painful, no shots are given. The exam is necessary and important, but the child may stop the exam at any time if they become uncomfortable.
Explain that they will have their "private parts" checked, as they may need time to get used to this idea.
Tips for making the exam successful:
Hungry and tired children get frustrated easily. Be sure your child has had a chance to eat and rest. You may bring a snack along if you wish. Bring a favorite toy, blanket or anything else that makes the child feel at ease when they are away from home. It helps to bring a friend or relative along to entertain the child or watch them when the staff needs to talk to you alone. Children are very sensitive to what their parents and caretakers are feeling. Your positive attitude, support and encouragement will help the exam go smoothly and quickly.
It is very difficult to predict what will happen for you and your child after the report has been made and the case is in the legal system. Sometimes the chance to speak up about what happened can be a good thing for a child-whether or not the abuser is convicted. Many children are relieved to think that someone more powerful will tell the abuser that he/she was wrong. For other children, however, the events following the report can be scary.You can make the process easier for your child by working with and not against the authorities. The legal system may be able to protect your child from future unsupervised contact with the offender. Working through the legal system is also a way to keep other children safe, because many offenders abuse more kids than those they have actually been caught molesting. In addition, most offenders do better in treatment with the force of the legal system behind them. It is a powerful way to hold the offender accountable for what he/she has done.
The legal process is complex, and can be confusing at times. To help guide you through it, the District Attorney’s office will usually assign a Victim Witness Assistant to you and your case. This person will help you through this difficult period and be available to answer your questions, explain the types of victim assistance and services for which you may be eligible. Also, your Victim Witness Assistant (VWA) will serve as your direct liaison to the District Attorney’s office and the particular attorney assigned to prosecute your case. Once the investigation in your case is completed and your case is received in the District Attorney’s office for prosecution, you will be notified of who your Victim Witness Assistant (VWA) is. Please contact your VWA as soon as possible and he/she will be happy to assist you throughout the entire court process.
How the Legal System responds to Child Abuse
The legal system can be confusing and frightening to children and families. Part of this confusion stems from the fact that two different "legal systems" can be working on the same case at the same time. These two systems are the "criminal" system and the "civil" system. In addition, there are two different court systems that can work on a child abuse case: Criminal Court and Probate Court. Both courts may work on the same case at the same time, but they have different purposes.The Criminal Court is concerned primarily with guilt or innocence of the accused and often uses a trial to decide on the suspect’s guilt or innocence. The criminal trial focuses on issues such as:
- Is there evidence to prove the child was abused?
- What illegal acts occurred? Was there a confession?
- If proven guilty, what punishment should the offender receive?
The Probate Court is concerned primarily with the safety of the child and focuses on issues like custody, supervised visitation and counseling. A number of different court hearings can be held to decide these issues. The decisions in the civil system do not depend on whether the criminal court finds guilt or not.
The Court Process
The District Attorney’s Office decides if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with criminal charges based upon the evidence discovered through the investigation and input from the SAIN Team. If there is insufficient evidence, or the victim is not in a position to continue with the court process, a decision may be made not to go forward with the criminal charges. This does not mean that the case could not be revisited in the future if the circumstances change.
Should the District Attorney’s Office decide to take out criminal charges, there are two separate options available: the District Court or Superior Court.
The District Court deals will all misdemeanors and a few felonies. A felony is a case that carries with it the potential of state prison incarceration. The case may be resolved in District Court, or a Probable Cause Hearing may be held. If the case is resolved in the District Court, it may be:
Heard by a Judge. The judge would then decide whether or not sufficient evidence was produced that proves the defendant guilty of the charge(s) beyond a reasonable doubt
Heard by a 6-member jury (usually with one alternate) who deliberate and decide whether or not sufficient evidence was presented on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by an Assistant District Attorney to prove that the defendant was guilty. The Defense Attorney represents the defendant’s interests.
Resolved without a trial, if the defendant admits that he/she committed the crime(s).
From District Court, a defendant may be sentenced up to 2 1/2 years in the County House of Correction.
The Superior Court may hear any case, but mostly deals with felonies, cases where the potential penalty includes the possibility of incarceration in State Prison. The Grand Jury is the way that most cases come to be heard in Superior Court. The other way is by a Probable Cause Hearing in District Court that then brings the case to the attention of the Grand Jury.
The Grand Jury is a group of 23 people from the community. Thirteen members of the Grand Jury must vote that there is reason to believe a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. This is the same as a standard Probable Cause Hearing. However, every case must be presented to the Grand Jury before it can be brought into Superior Court, even if it is there by way of the Probable Cause Hearing. In other words, even if a District Court Judge found probable cause, the case must still be presented to the Grand Jury.
If thirteen or more members of the Grand Jury find reason to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime, a True Bill is returned and the defendant is indicted and brought before the Superior Court. If the Grand Jury does not find reason to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime, a No Bill is entered and the criminal case ends.
The Probable Cause Hearing:
At a Probable Cause Hearing, a Judge in the District Court will determine if there is enough evidence to show that it is more likely than not that
- A crime has been committed, and
- The defendant committed that crime
There are many reasons why a case might proceed to a Probable Cause Hearing instead of a direct presentation to the Grand Jury. The most common reason is that the defendant has been arrested and his/her liberty is restricted, as when he/she is being held on bail. The defendant has rights to a speedy resolution of his/her case when he/she is being held pre-trial. If a defendant is being held pre-trial and the Grand Jury is not scheduled to meet at that time, the District Court may decide that the defendant has a right to a Probable Cause Hearing.
If the District Court judge determines that the evidence is sufficient, the case is then bound over to the next sitting of the Grand Jury.
After a Superior Court indictment or a District Court complaint (depending on the charges), the case proceeds through the discovery phrase. This is where the defense files motions to obtain information from the Government. With child abuse cases, this can be a long process because the defense may seek to access counseling records of the victim. The District Attorney’s Office generally objects to this, and a Judge must intervene and decide what, if any, records become available to both sides. Even if a Judge rules that the attorneys may see some record, a further hearing is still required for the Judge to decide whether a defense attorney will be allowed to use any part of these records at trial. This process could take up to one year.
When the case is marked for trial, the victim will need to be present for that trial, regardless which court the trial takes place in. The District Attorney’s Office has a Victim/Witness Assistance Unit that provides a safe place away from the defendant for the victim and family members and friends to wait until it is time for them to testify. The Victim/Witness Assistant and the Assistant District Attorney will do everything they can to make the criminal justice experience as comfortable as possible for the victim and members of the victim’s family. As mentioned earlier, a case may be resolved without a trial. A defendant may admit to the crime. This can be done whether the District Attorney’s Office agrees with what the defendant hopes for as a sentence. The Government cannot stop a defendant from changing his/her plea. The plea may be agreed upon- this is when the Commonwealth and the defendant agree what the sentence should be, or un-agreed upon, when the defendant and the District Attorney’s Office do not agree upon the proposed sentence.
The District Attorney’s Office makes the government’s recommendation on the sentence. The victim and/or family are usually consulted and informed what the recommendation will be. At the time of a change of plea, and before any sentence is imposed, the victim (and their parents if the victim is a minor) has a right under Massachusetts law to address the Judge to tell the court what their feelings are about the sentencing, and about the impact that the crime has had upon them. It is then up to the Judge to decide what the sentence will be. After a conviction, a defendant may receive jail/prison time, probation, or a combination of both. The probationary period may also require counseling. A conviction for child molestation requires that the defendant register as a sex offender, no matter what sentence the defendant receives.
If the defendant wishes to change his/her plea, the following are some of the factors that would be considered by the Assistant District Attorney in formulating the government’s recommendation for sentencing: