Hugh Nystrom: Every Tennessean responsible for reporting child abuse

 

It is vital that we seize the moment presented by the Penn State scandal to focus on how frequently child sexual abuse happens right here in our East Tennessee community.

Having grown up here in Knoxville, I can honestly say that living here often feels as if we are part of a family scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. However, this image is destroyed when you realize that there were more than 800 cases of child sexual abuse reported last year right here in Knox County. Statistics show over and over again that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). Less than 10 percent of these children will ever share what happened to them.

Sadly, it is not "stranger danger" that our children have to worry about. The awful truth is that more than 85 percent of the victims knew their offenders well. They are relatives, friends, neighbors or coaches. It is hard to comprehend that abuse could be witnessed or suspected and then never reported to the police.

It is hard to explain the silence of adult witnesses to the crime of sexual abuse. But if the problem is a lack of information about how to report such abuse and what will happen as a result, we must make sure that information is more widely known and understood. Fortunately, Tennessee has very specific laws regarding the reporting of sexual abuse. Tennessee Code Annotated 37-1-605 states that any person who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been sexually abused shall report such knowledge or suspicion immediately to:

  1. Local Law Enforcement,
  2. The Department of Children's Services or
  3. Juvenile Court.

The same code of the law also has provisions relating to keeping the identity of the reporter confidential and ensuring that any person making a report of child sexual abuse in good faith will be immune from any civil or criminal liability. With this law in place, you have both a moral and legal obligation to report suspected sexual abuse.

Understanding what keeps child victims of sexual abuse silent is easy. They fear that revealing the abuse will bring harm to them or those they love, punishment and loss of affection. Child sexual abuse is a crime that thrives in a climate of silence, secrecy and shame. Fear is what offenders count on when they groom their victims.

I have often given families advice that they should have a No Secret Rule — absolutely no secrets within the family. Surprises, like a surprise birthday party, are perfectly OK. But no secrets, and make sure your child knows the difference between a secret and a surprise.

Once a case of child sexual abuse has been reported, the child will likely be referred to visit a child advocacy center. Child advocacy centers provide a child-friendly location for assessments of child abuse as well as support services for the law enforcement team members assigned to work child abuse cases.

The Childhelp Children's Center of East Tennessee is a nonprofit agency that serves as the child advocacy center for our judicial district. We provide child abuse assessments, forensic interviews, forensic medical exams and ongoing support for the child and the nonoffending family members. We work directly with our partners in law enforcement and DCS to help the victims and provide evidence for prosecution.

The Penn State scandal has brought the subject of child sexual abuse to the top of everyone's mind over the past week. However, Childhelp has been right here in our community, assisting sexually abused children, for more than 15 years. Last year our Child Protective Investigative Team served more than 1,300 children.

What can you do right now to help or prevent child abuse in our community?

  • Raise your hand and make a pledge to report abuse when you suspect it as required by law.
  • Remember the No Secret Rule for your family.
  • Implement a formal child abuse prevention education program in your school, church or community center. For example: The Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe abuse and neglect prevention program.
  • Donate your time, treasure or talents to help the children's advocacy center in your community. These centers have a direct impact on helping abused children and helping law enforcement efforts go after the offenders.

The Childhelp Children's Advocacy Center has been helping abused children in East Tennessee for many years, and as a nonprofit we can always use help. If you would like to help us in this mission through donating, fundraising, advocacy or perhaps even becoming a foster parent. please call us at 865-637-1753.

To report a suspected case of child abuse, please call the Tennessee Department of Children's Services at 1-877-237-0004.

Hugh Nystrom is the director of program operations and development for Childhelp Tennessee. For more information about child abuse prevention or to learn more about Childhelp, please go to www.Childhelp.org.

© 2011 Knoxville News Sentinel. All rights reserved.

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