HARRISON – The Northern Michigan Alliance for Children began serving Clare County in 2014, and includes the Clare Regional Child Advocacy Center at 127 Second St. in Harrison, as well as the mobile unit, a specially outfitted RV which functions as a mobile interview/monitoring facility serving outlying areas.
At their March 15 meeting, Clare County Commissioners heard a highly detailed presentation by Terrah Johnson, NMAC’s executive director. Johnson spoke of her organization’s structure and the vital work it takes on for the benefit and protection of sexually and physically abused children and their families.
Johnson’s presentation began by defining a child advocacy center as a place where children are heard and that CACs serve children and adolescents who are believed to be victims of abuse, and most frequently, sexual abuse. She said most children don’t immediately disclose their abuse, many not for months or even years, and sometimes never, because it is a difficult story to tell.
“We provide a child-friendly place where they’re comfortable telling their story,” Johnson said. “Our interviewer is great at being able to make the child feel comfortable, and not just pressing them for information.”
She explained that the CAC model is based on having the child tell their story only once. The difficulty in telling that story had previously been compounded by the victim having to tell and retell their story over and over to each of the various entities involved in their case – reliving the worst part of their life to the point of retraumatizing the victim with each retelling. CACs, however, provide a coordinated interview process which enables the child to speak with only the forensic interviewer who is trained in this specialized field. This interview is observed on closed-circuit video feed simultaneously by the other members of the Multi-Disciplinary Team comprised of representatives of the agencies involved in the investigation. They include prosecution, law enforcement, child protective services, medical professionals, mental health providers, victim advocates and other professionals involved in the case.
“These children come to us in their most fragile state, so we need to make the children and the parents as comfortable as possible,” Johnson said. “It works and we have such positive feedback from the families going through the process.”
She added that “the number coming through is astronomical” and noted that child abuse is quote common and can happen at any age, to any race or ethnicity, any gender or sexual orientation, any socio-economic status, in homes of any marital status, and within any religious background. In short, it can happen to anyone.
Some additional statistics covering the CAC service area of Clare, Gladwin and Missaukee counties were derived from Kids Count (2020) data. Cited for Clare County was the 267% rise in the number of children involved in investigated families since 2010. That Clare ranked second highest in child poverty [29.4%] among the state’s 83 counties, with Wayne County listed as highest.
One of the truly staggering statistics noted was that – in Clare County – 38 in 1,000 children are victims of sexual or physical assault. To extrapolate by using a little pencil-licking math, the 2020 Census cites the county’s overall population as 30,856 and its population ages 18 and older as 24,685. That leaves the count of those younger than 18 at 6,171 [which equals 6.171 units of 1,000]. So, multiplying 38 by 6.171 yields the rounded-up victim total of 235. That is where the per-population ranking is derived that places Clare County second only to Wayne County in confirmed child abuse/neglect victims among the 83 counties. [At a previous BOC meeting, that second per-population placement was misstated by a commissioner as a national figure, resulting in it being quoted in a previous story: it is corrected here.] Gladwin County also is struggling with these confirmed abuse/neglect victim numbers and is ranked fourth in the state.
Other statistics presented included: nearly 1-in-10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday; 91% of victims know their abuser; and 1-in-7 youth internet users have received sexual solicitations.
Thus, the statistically supported need for child advocacy centers is not only evident but speaks to a crucial need for communities to be not only simply aware of the problem, but actively diligent in their protection efforts.
And how does a CAC tackle such a staggering problem? By providing prevention education services for children, parents, caregivers and community members to prevent child sexual and physical abuse from occurring within the local community. The CAC provides primary prevention services to first- and third-grade students in both Clare and Gladwin counties. Also provided are secondary services to parents, caregivers and community members. Also available are the programs Mom Power, Darkness to Light, and Fraternity of Fathers.
Offering suggestions about how to stop child sexual/physical abuse, Johnson’s presentation listed setting boundaries first. That includes limiting the number of people with one-on-one access to the child, and giving the child permission to not do anything with their body which they are uncomfortable doing. Also essential is talking to the child – having age-appropriate conversations about their bodies and healthy relationships, including using proper names for body parts – and having such conversations multiple times. It is also important to be observant, paying attention to signs of abuse in children and suspicious behaviors in others.
Johnson said it is important to be prepared in how to respond if a child says they were sexually abused, and equally important that the child feels they are being heard. Thus, the listener needs to be prepared to take the necessary steps to ensure the child’s safety. It also was noted that instincts are to be trusted. If a gut feeling says not to leave a child with someone – don’t. And if a child’s mood or behavior changes before or after being with someone, ask questions. Also necessary is getting the word out among acquaintances, letting people know how common this problem is and how they can protect the children in their lives.
“Be that somebody for somebody,” Johnson said. “If you think something in your gut – trust your gut.”
Prevention is essential, but what about the victims? NMAC offers comprehensive, innovate therapy services for children, adolescents and families who have been affected by trauma. Individual children and their non-offending siblings and non-offending caregivers are provided support, resources and services, including play therapy, Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing.
Johnson closed by noting that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Ribbons worn in support of causes are common, and the ribbon in this instance is blue – as are the pinwheels being mounted on fences and in gardens by school children and caring adults, as well as the lightbulbs which can be seen shining from homes and local businesses. Johnson said that to show the CAC’s support throughout the community, it has “tons” free blue bulbs available for people who would like to display them in their homes or businesses. People can contact the CAC to obtain them.
Slides presented by Johnson included insightful quotes. One anonymous phrase was “I always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.”
The second was a quote from the 19th century by a British Member of Parliament regarding the abolition of slavery. Transcending time and distance, it also applies well to the undeniable responsibility that accompanies knowledge of wrongdoing perpetrated upon a child: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can NEVER again say that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce.
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