Ways to deal with a parent’s nightmare
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org September 8, 2013 7:51PM
Dr. Sangita Rangala, director of Edward Hospital's Care Center that specializes in treating sexual abuse of children for an eight-county area.| Submitted
Mutual Ground: Sexual abuse hotline 630-897-8989; administration 630-897-0084
Edward Hospital’s Care Center: 630-527-3288
Updated: October 10, 2013 6:28AM
What would you do if you found out your child was sexually assaulted — but that no crime had been committed?
Jennifer is a North Aurora mom who was caught in that position when her preschool daughter, not quite 4, told her in May a little boy in her class licked his finger, then anally penetrated her with it while the two were on the slide during recess.
To say this mother is upset is an understatement.
To say she wants someone to blame is understandable.
But finding fault can be as complicated as how to handle such a situation, which she discovered after her daughter revealed the story to her.
According to experts, Jennifer — I’m not using her last name to protect the child’s identity — did quite a few things right. She reported the abuse to the Aurora school. She called the Department of Children and Family Services. She also filed a police report.
But none of these steps gave her the answers she’s seeking — mainly because when the abuser is under age 10, no crime has been committed. And when no crime has been committed, where does the blame lie? Or is there blame at all?
DCFS conducted an investigation, but it revolved around possible negligence on the part of the well-respected school. That report came back “unfounded,” which means the daycare had proper supervision in place.
A caseworker tried talking to her daughter eventually, Jennifer said, but the child would not respond to his questions. While the Kane County Child Advocacy Center could not offer assistance because of the boy’s age, experts there directed her to Family Counseling Center, where her daughter is now seeing a therapist.
But all this took more than a month, Jennifer said. She pulled her child out of the daycare center and presented the counseling bill to the school, which she says refused to pay it because no fault was found.
In the aftermath of the abuse, she said, her daughter became increasingly clingy. Therapy has “definitely helped,” but she worries about long-term effects. She has no idea what happened to the other child, because of privacy issues, only that he is still at the school. And Jennifer is concerned about this young boy’s home life. The child’s aggressive behavior, a second parent with a daughter in the school also told me, “has been a problem” for a couple of years.
A difficult job
It’s difficult to gather statistics on how frequently child-on-child sex abuse occurs, according to experts, because it is underreported. But it does happen, said Barb Duszynski, children’s sexual assault therapist with Mutual Ground, an anti-abuse agency in Aurora. And there’s nothing black and white about how to proceed.
“Sexual exploration,” she said, “is natural in young children. That’s why it can get complicated when trying to figure out whether it’s a case of abuse or simply a child playing doctor.”
Intent and age differences, Duszynski added, are important factors.
“When you have a 12-year-old, it’s likely he knows he is victimizing the other child. That’s not necessarily the case when the child is 5.”
Also important is to look at the reference point of the child who is the abuser. The fact this boy wet his finger is a red flag, she said. Did he see something like this happen in his own home? Was it done to him?
“This is a parents’ nightmare, and it is also a daycare’s nightmare,” Duszynski said, “Everyone needs to use it as a teachable moment.”
The first thing to remember if your child reveals such an incident: Stay calm.
“Don’t get upset,” she insisted. Get as many facts as possible, but don’t make your child feel like something horrible happened, or that he or she did anything wrong.
Then call the school and report the abuse. Although there is no need to get police involved because of the age, it is necessary to call DCFS. Don’t assume that just because both children were young there’s no damage, she said.
Duszynski advised against taking the abused child to an emergency room or regular doctor’s office, but instead go to Edward Hospital in Naperville, which has the Care Center, a unit serving an eight-county area specializing in sexually abused children. The center, led by Dr. Sangita Rangala, provides a combination of expertise and compassion, which often leads to children laughing and playing during an exam that might otherwise be traumatic and painful.
It is important to follow the procedure so you don’t contaminate the interview process, experts say. Jennifer took her daughter to her pediatrician, who knew enough not to ask the young patient about the incident, for fear of doing just that. The doctor did an exam, which revealed some emotional trauma, she said, but no physical injuries.
Jennifer is just thankful her daughter told her what happened on the playground. Young children don’t always reveal the abuse right away because it takes time to process it, experts note. That’s why it’s imperative to talk to them at a young age about good touch/bad touch.
It’s also important to remember that professional help is available at no cost. Mutual Ground offers free counseling not only for children who have been abused but also for their parents on how to deal with the issue going forward.
“Chances are the child will forget what happened,” said Duszynski. “But she won’t forget how mom responded to it.”