Updated: May 16, 2018 04:57 PM
Child abuse continues to be something that unfortunately affects more and more families. First Witness Child Advocacy Center, a local organization in Duluth, has made it a priority to help those struggling from abuse and raising awareness on the issue.
"Up to 1 in 10 kids have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18," said Ina Newton, a First Witness advocate.
When that happens, child abuse victims need to be supported and guided through a process that no family should have to go through.
"What First Witness does is helps to bring some comfort to this very difficult trauma scenario," said Wade Rasch, a St. Louis Sheriff's Office investigator.
Gathering evidence to prosecute in a child abuse case is crucial to bring justice to the victim, but it doesn't end there. Getting the child help to move forward is just as important. First Witness works as a support group, providing a multidisciplinary team for every step of the way.
"It just goes deeper than a jail door slamming and that's where this team approach is really helpful," Rasch said.
The primary tool in a child abuse case is what's called the forensic interview, the attempt to find out exactly what happened. The key is to make sure the interview is done in a way that makes the child comfortable to speak up, while also making sure the information is accurate.
"Forensically sound is following a protocol that has been researched based and tested to get past any types of blocks that might be there," Rasch said.
"Our interviews are a neutral fact-finding interview," Tracie Clanaugh, the executive director of First Witness, said.
Child abuse victims need to feel protected and safe throughout the investigation.
"The children are in the center of what we do, it's child-friendly," Clanaugh said.
The interview is conducted in a designated room while in another room investigators are monitoring and recording the interview. Those asking the questions are trained to put the child's needs first.
"The inflections, your body positioning, the way you ask questions are important," Rasch said.
"That's the reason there's a protocol for interviewing children and ultimately it's to get to the truth," Rasch said.
First Witness also trains other professionals in how to interact and interview with children for investigations.
"Bringing it back to a neutral safe ending so it's not just a trauma filled interview," Rasch said.
Over the past six months, First Witness has interviewed 91 children.
Adding to the sensitivity of the matter, is the nature of the abuser. Rarely is it a stranger.
"When it comes to sexual abuse, 90 percent of the time it's usually someone that the child knows or the family knows," Newton said.
Perpetrators use grooming tactics like building trust with children and their families before the abuse occurs.
"Crossing a boundary to see how people might respond, but really the goal is to maintain secrecy and isolation of that child. Through different tactics they'll find ways to do that," Newton said.
To help kids ahead of time, prevention education is taught through First Witness's 'Safe and Strong' program, providing age appropriate lessons in schools.
Since October, First Witness has made over 100 presentations to almost 3,000 children from kindergarten through fifth grade.
"That program helps kids build language skills around boundaries," Clanaugh said.
Children learn the difference between safe and unsafe touches.
"The rules are that no one should touch your private parts unless they're keeping you clean, healthy, and safe," Newton said.
Appropriate examples parents can use is potty training, a doctor's appointment, or even explaining why you have to hold their hand to cross the street.
First Witness encourages parents to talk with children about body safety and identifying safe people in their lives.The organization says it's important for the conversation to be ongoing in the child's life.
"As young as two you can start introducing words, you can start introducing skills to even get yourself as a parent or a caregiver in the habit of giving that to your child, and that can progress, because the goal is that it's a progressive conversation," Newton said.
As the child and the family go through a stressful and difficult time of prosecuting the perpetrator, it's important no one feels attacked, overwhelmed, or judged.
"We all need to take a step back and listen. Listen to the voices and the needs of those affected," Newton said.
Asking for details and specific information about the abuse is something that should be avoided.
"The best advice I could give for a potential parent or caregiver is to simply listen to your children if they're making a disclosure about sexual abuse or neglect," Rasch said.
After listening, contacting professionals is essential. Getting help to get through the traumatic experience is crucial for the victim's health.
Family service programs at First Witness's include crisis counseling, help rebuilding boundaries, teaching resiliency skills, and developing a safety plan to minimize chances of future abuse.
"A successful resolution doesn't just mean throwing a child molester in prison, because what we do have is a child that needs services, family that's struggling with it," Rasch said.
"Our advocates really work hard to walk the family through those processes that come ahead of them and be there for them both emotionally and just logistically," Clanaugh said.
Helping the affected heal and move forward.
If a child discloses abuse and is in immediate danger, call 911. If a child is safe from the alleged perpetrator, make a report to a child protection agency. First Witness can help you in making a report to social services.
Contact First Witness at:
Updated: May 16, 2018 04:57 PM
Created: May 14, 2018 06:00 PM
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