A Cycle of Abuse Pt. 8: Challenges and importance of reporting child sexual assault

Published: Jan. 16, 2021 at 10:09 AM CST
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The story was originally published and aired April 17, 2019, but is being republished after it did not properly transfer onto WSAW’s new web platform.

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - In Part 3 of the 7 Investigates: Cycle of Abuse series, we shared someone reports a child sexual assault two to three times daily in our 15 county viewing area, but there are countless more that go unreported. That is because reporting can be difficult and complicated for victims.

It’s why professionals like the program coordinator of the sexual assault victims services program at the Women’s Community, Jessica Lind calls victims who tell someone about their abuse brave.

“It takes a lot of courage to say that this happened to me,” she said. “A lot of teens fear that they’re going to lose friends, they’re going to lose family’s just going to interrupt their life.”

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzstoen said there often is not a lot of incentive for children to report, outside of getting the abuse to stop.

“Many times the child who reports is really putting their happiness, their situation in jeopardy. Many times the perpetrator treats them out really very well.”

“Lot of kids I’ve talked to have said that they did not tell about the abuse because the abuser threatened them,” Lee Shipway, the executive director of Peaceful Solutions Counseling and longtime trauma counselor recalled. “That if they told anybody they wouldn’t be believed. And if you tell anybody you’re going to end up in foster care and it’s going to break up the family. I’ve had abusers who told the children, if you tell anyone I will harm you. Or even worse if you tell anybody I will harm your brothers and sisters.”

She continued, “A lot of times kids don’t report because of their age that they think like it won’t happen again, like they think this was a one-time occurrence or it was some kind of a special situation, especially if the perpetrator was drunk. It’s like, well, because he was drunk. That’s why they happen and they kind of excuse it and just think it won’t happen again. Sometimes kids don’t tell because they think it doesn’t matter like it won’t do any good to tell anybody, which is sad, so they just don’t tell. Those would be the top reasons that I find that kids either don’t tell, delay in reporting or say something and then go, ‘no, I made that up’ because they’re afraid of the repercussions.”

It also can be embarrassing for victims to talk about and many can feel shame, placing blame on themselves for the act committed against them.

“That self-blame and guilt can really be hidden deep inside of people when they’re not able to get that out and process that with someone,” Lind said.

These difficulties with reporting apply to kids and adults who were assaulted years ago, which is why supporting victims is crucial. Shipway explained there are more reasons adults abused as children don’t report until they are an adult.

“This is going to sound odd to the public probably, but sometimes when you grow up in a situation, especially in incest situation, you assume and think that that’s what every family does,” she said. “So sometimes it’s not until a woman’s in her 20s that she’s around other people and talking more about more intimate things that she realizes none of her friends did that with their dads or their stepdads. And then that’s a horrific...revelation.”

“This is very yucky and I don’t want to let anybody know about that,” she continued. “So sometimes people will just hide that for a long, long time because of the stigma or sometimes people will report later because of what I talked about that the memories didn’t come back until they were older.”

Shipway explained the brain tucks away traumatic memories that aren’t always immediately retrievable.

“A lot of times I’ve had women I’ve worked with who, let’s say, for example, were abused at age nine, had no memories of it until she got married, had children of her own, and when her kids got to be each nine, bam! That’s when the memories started coming,” she said. “That happens time and time again where when their kids are at the age, when they were abused, that those memories started coming back.”

Despite the risks of reporting, the professionals who spoke with 7 Investigates say it’s important to report because it could empower other victims to do the same. Wetzstoen said she has seen it happen numerous times.

“They thought they were alone. They didn’t realize that there was somebody else out there that was going through what they were going through and they do come forward as a result. Even if it’s not the same perpetrator or suspect, people draw strength from other people’s strength and they see that.”

Reporting can also turn a victim into a survivor because it can connect them to the resources they need to heal and cope with their trauma.

“Unfortunately this (reporting) does interrupt their life,” Lind noted. “However, it’s better to come forward and say something to someone, whether it’s the authorities or a trusted adult that you can talk with because to, to bury that and to hold that in I feel is more damaging than to release it to someone.”

Shipway agrees. She said when people don’t get treatment for their trauma, problems like posttraumatic stress disorder and its symptoms, depression, and anxiety, and their symptoms. “Not sleeping well, nightmares, flashbacks of the event, either overeating or under eating. The appetite issues are usually affected, not able to trust other people. Always been what we call hyper-vigilant. Looking over your shoulder and making sure people aren’t following you, that you’re in a safe place. It makes a big impact on a lot of different parts of that person’s life.”

“It can impact their social life, their intimate partner relationships; if they’re even able to have one. Their work environment, their ability to leave their home and feel safe. It kind of permeates through a lot of different things,” Shipway explained.

Even if a victim’s story does not get reported to places like law enforcement or social services, these experts say telling someone can lift a weight off their shoulders.

“It’s very empowering to victims to just get that out so they can get treatment, counseling, therapy, support through their loved ones to finally tell someone. It’s very destructive when People keep it to themselves,” Wetzstoen said.

“For someone to be able to hear that what happened to you was not your fault. I believe you and thank you so much for sharing that with me I think is so important for a victim to hear and to know that they did the right thing,” Lind said.

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Child and Family Therapist, Stephanie Hamann said when she’s giving counseling sessions to victims, she’s giving them coping skills for when the symptoms of trauma emerge, allowing victims to take control. “Sexual abuse isn’t a life sentence. It’s something unfortunate that happens to lots of people, but it doesn’t have to affect you forever.”

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