By Edward Marshall
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — One in four girls and one in six boys in the state of West Virginia will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, yet only one in 10 of those victims will come forward and report the abuse.
It’s a frightening statistic, but one that the Safe Haven Child Advocacy Center in Martinsburg and the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network hope to change through the launch of a new statewide public awareness campaign aimed at protecting children from abuse.
The Safe Haven Child Advocacy Center, one of 20 child advocacy centers across the state, announced the launch this month of the “One With Courage” campaign, which highlights the bravery that it takes for child victims to talk about their abuse and calls on all adults to have similar courage to identify signs of abuse and to know how to respond.
“We are really passionate about protecting kids. We are also very passionate about enabling other people to protect children, which is why I’m very proud and honored to be able to introduce the One With Courage campaign to you all this morning,” Amber Knuckles, child advocacy coordinator for the Safe Haven Child Advocacy Center, said at a press conference.
Last year alone, 173 children from the Eastern Panhandle walked through the agency’s door for a forensic interview and a total of 2,358 children received services from advocacy center programs in West Virginia. Almost 80 percent of children served were identified as alleged victims of sexual abuse.
“All of the CACs, including ours, are all very serious about this issue. We want to give children a voice. We want to encourage adults to be the one voice with courage to stand up for these children,” Knuckles said.
The campaign also highlights the unique role child advocacy centers play in providing services to child victims of abuse. The campaign launch included a panel of four guest speakers who spoke of the importance of the campaign and child advocacy center services.
West Virginia Delegate Tiffany Lawrence said that, while the statistics surrounding child abuse and child sexual abuse are heartbreaking, she saw hope as she looked around at those gathered.
“This is why I’m proud today to stand with you with the One With Courage campaign and focus on the adult role of protecting our children rather than asking our children to protect themselves,” Lawrence said.
For too long, she said, child abuse prevention efforts have centered on asking children to protect themselves from strangers, when a majority of abuse is perpetrated by someone in the victim’s family or someone that the child knows and trusts.
“The One With Courage campaign highlights the 10 signs of abuse, and I think it’s very important that all adults recognize that abuse and appropriately respond to the many, many children across our state who are facing just this,” Lawrence said.
The signs include unexplained injuries, changes in behavior, returning to earlier behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, a fear of going home, changes in eating habits, changes in sleeping habits, changes in school performance or attendance, a lack of personal care or hygiene, risk-taking behaviors and inappropriate sexual behaviors.
Cpl. F.H. Edwards, a member of the West Virginia State Police’s Crimes Against Children Unit, spoke about the critical importance of child advocacy center services to both victims and law enforcement officers investigating crimes of sexual and physical abuse against children.
“The importance of having a child advocacy center in the Panhandle is that these 173 kids that were brought here were here in a safe environment when they had to sit down and tell their story. There’s people here to offer services and post services to begin the healing process and to provide law enforcement and CPS or any other professionals that may be at the interview too with critical information that they would need,” Edwards said.
Jefferson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Hassan Rasheed said child advocacy centers provide a place where a child can feel safe without the intimidating atmosphere of a police station, where a child might feel scared to disclose the abuse they have suffered.
“As most of you know, some of the most important - some of the most difficult - cases are cases involving the abuse of children. Why are they the most important? Obviously, it’s because you have the most vulnerable in society who need the most protection,” Rasheed said.
Jefferson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kimberly Crockett said 20 percent of victims of sexual abuse are under the age of eight, and she said it’s important for the public to realize that the people who abuse children look like everyone else.
Crockett also highlighted a new state law that took effect on July aimed at protecting victims of child sexual abuse and punishing those who fail to report it. Under the new provision of the West Virginia state code, any person over 18 who receives a disclosure from a credible witness or who observes any sexual abuse or sexual assault of a child must immediately report it within 48 hours to the West Virginia State Police or the Department of Health and Human Resources.
“You can’t know that this is going on and not tell someone who is in a position to do something about it. That is very important that the public knows that you are now mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse,” Crockett said.
For more information about the campaign or to learn more about the signs of child abuse, visit www.wvcan.org.
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/