What Would You Say?
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This weekend I powered off the news. No headlines. No social media. No politics. Since I am professionaly immersed in the world of current events, every once in a while I gift myself with a healthy dose of radio silence. I read. I hold on to my beloveds. I spend time outside.
And then, Monday comes.
Yet another mass shooting with its details of horror. Violence at the polls in Catalonia. Reminders of the sexual abuse of thousands of South Dakota children.
It's my job to talk about all of this and to do the intense work of putting the senseless into honest and thoughtful context. Fortunately, I am not alone in this work. I am surrounded not only by remarkable reporters and producers, but by the most insightful guests as well.
Carrie Sanderson is the director for the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at the University of South Dakota. We talked about three avenues for dealing with complex social problems.
1. Knowledge: Gather the facts about what is going on.
2. Response: What is the most impactful way to respond to this situation?
3. Prevention: Knowing what we know, how do we move forward to eliminate the criminal, the evil, the tragic in our society?
It's important to note these occur in tandem. We strive for prevention as we increase our knowledge of the full scope of a problem, for example.
When a child has suffered abuse, what's the most immediate, impactful response, I ask Sanderson. .
Her suggestions are simple and direct:
1. Tell the child you believe them.
2. Tell them it's not their fault.
3. Seek help.
Think about what you would say before a tragedy occurs, she advises. It is this act of contemplation that stays with me still. How many situations might be blessed by simply considering how you might respond before something bad happens to someone you love?
How much emotional damage might be prevented by telling our loved ones we hear them ... by telling them we believe them?
These things are challenging to talk about. But it is our responsibility as adults to have these conversations. How do we build our resilience to listen? How do we build our resilience to speak?
Might I humbly suggest that a few days of silence from the headlines is powerful medicine indeed.
This conversation has been edited from its original format. To listen to it in its entirety, click here.
Welcome to In The Moment, I'm Lori Walsh. Research from the Jolene's Law Task Force indicates that more than 4,000 South Dakota children suffer sexual abuse every year. The devastation spans all ethnic and socio-economic groups in the state. Joining us is Carrie Sanderson. She is director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at the University of South Dakota.
Let's start with the open house first before digging into some of the statistics and details, and what's being done statewide. Tell me about the open house and where it is, and who you hope stops by to learn more.
Thank you. The open house is being held in Watertown, South Dakota. It is at the Sanford facility there. They have a floor, actually, that's designated to this project, which is a project where local law enforcement and other folks who help kiddos through times of need will be able to address the child's need, whether it be a psychological exam, a forensic interview, or a forensic medical exam, or talking to an investigator, they'll be able to do that all at one spot. The open house is actually going to be again, held at the Sanford facility from 11:00AM until 1:00PM. Our goal is to have not only local community members, but local officials come over and see what we're actually doing and how we can help the communities in the northeastern side of South Dakota.
How do you make a facility like that effective? It sounds like having a designated spot and a floor would be a good spot, so there's a safe place to come. What else goes into the planning of a place?
What makes this project unique is that across the state, we have professionals who are working on a day to day basis to outreach to family members and children who are experiencing abuse. This project is where a team is coming together and will actually evaluate and see the child at one facility. This is exciting for us because we have the medical professionals, the mental health, again, the investigators, the prosecutors, and others who are associated with the child's welfare all at the table at the same time, identifying the child's needs.
Why this is exciting for us is that it's the first time in South Dakota where we've been able to have one facility that will hold the entire team, and where each piece of the team can come together to get their work done. There were some special needs for this project in terms of finding the equipment that's necessary for the forensic exams and for the forensic interviews, as well as some investigative tools. The community of Watertown has been very supportive, and then the surrounding 13 counties, which will hopefully be taking part in this team type atmosphere, have also been supportive in terms of getting training and understanding what the project is all about.
Are the officials there all the time? Do they converge when there is a case? Is it staffed?
That's a great question. Yes, that's a great questions. It's my understanding that this facility will have staffing at least two times a week. However, each time that there is a case where a child needs to be addressed, they will come together on that individual child's needs. Again, two times a week they will meet. They're actually having the folks from the Child's Voice of Sioux Falls come up to the Watertown area for the forensic interview and the medical exam, and then they have a DCI agent who is stationed there, as well as the Codington County prosecutor. They will come together, again, two times a week, and then at the need of other specific children.
What do you think the potential is for really having all those, I mean, you've sort of addressed it, but let's dig a little deeper and I'm wondering, when those people all are around the same table metaphorically, at least in the same space talking about one child and one case and what needs to happen next, what are the potential ripple effects of that for that child, and then for other cases?
What's going to be amazing and what we look forward for the community seeing is that the child will have a more positive experience. For a child to be in this type of situation, they've already experienced a harm. If we can create a situation or create an atmosphere where we reduce the trauma that that child receives by going through the investigative process, that will make a healthier child, and quite frankly, a healthier community as the child grows up. When the community starts seeing how there is effective prosecution and there is a positive outcome for the child and for the family, I think the support will grow and we're hoping to see that this pilot project takes off and will be available across the entire state.
This is really hypothetical, but is it possible that more people could come forward if they feel like there's a better pathway, and that pathway is more child centered or more focused on what the child will experience during an investigation? Do you think it could have the impact of more people being willing to go down the route of justice?
Yes, absolutely. That's our entire goal, is to open the conversation about child maltreatment, child sexual abuse, and child harm, and just acknowledge that it's happening and educate the community and professionals on the best way to help a child and a family through that situation so that the end result, regardless of how the prosecution or the justice system works out, that we're creating a healthy system for that child and that family to move past the harm and to become productive members of society. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but we're hoping that numbers do increase, because people are willing to have the conversation, willing to seek help, and then are seeing the healthy response to what happens when you do get help for that harm that's occurring.
There's a lot of news today about some really complex problems, and I think a lot of people are feeling weighed down by it. This is a terrible problem to talk about, child sexual abuse, and it's incredibly complex as well. Give me an idea of how you really tackle a complex problem like this with the goal of eradicating child sexual abuse. Not just throwing up your arms and saying, "Well this is just the way of the world." How do you start coordinating, what kind of conversations do you have about how to address something as complicated as this?
That's a great question, and it is a complicated area. What we're really doing, is we're looking at three tenets. We're looking at the knowledge, the response, and the prevention of the abuse and the harm that's happening. The first thing that we're doing, is we're tackling the idea that it's happening in all of our communities, and regardless of where you're at, it's there and we're going to address it. Then we're going to talk about how is the most impactful way for us to respond to that child maltreatment. Then we're going to work on the prevention. All of that stems from understanding why it's happening and what's going on.
One of our main things that the center is doing is addressing what we call adverse childhood experiences. We are providing some statewide education on what happens when a child experiences more and more adverse childhood experiences. They're referred to as ACEs. As part of that, we will be starting a public awareness campaign about how to manage ACEs, whether it's in your own personal life when you're an adult looking back at your childhood, or you're working directly with a child as a guardian, a parent, as a school professional, or others. It's comprehensive. When you're doing all three pieces at once, and we need to do the knowledge, the response, and prevention at the same time so that we are able to appropriately address our communities.
Now, I would like to say that Jolene's Law Task Force, which was implemented in 2014 to study this problem in the state of South Dakota, looked at the problem holistically and set up a 10 year plan for the state to address childhood maltreatment. Out of that grew the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment. Well, the center does not provide direct services. What we do, is we connect services that are already in communities with either funding resources or education materials to better prepare the communities to become trauma informed and to address those ACEs. It's complicated, but when we're looking at it holistically knowing that we can make a difference in South Dakota, and be effective statewide.
Let's talk about being trauma informed. I look at this number of just 4,000 South Dakota children suffering sexual abuse every year. Let's dig more into the knowledge. Then, the question is, why? Why is this happening in our state? I mean, throughout the country, to be fair, but why is it happening here?
I appreciate you saying throughout the country, because I should indicate that South Dakota is not higher in terms of numbers of cases than the states surrounding us, but we realize that it is a national epidemic, it's a statewide epidemic, and so we look back on our history and say, "Why are some children suffering abuse? Why did some make it through okay, and why do some have further problems in their life, and what can we do to impact that?" Well, we know that once you experience a high enough number of adverse childhood experiences, you are going to actually have some negative health implications. As you grow, you're going to be more likely to be in the justice system. Quite frankly, you may be more likely to become a perpetrator yourself.
When we become a trauma informed state, what we're doing is educating all members of our society, of our communities on the negative impacts of adverse childhood experiences, and then how you can best react to a child in terms of getting that child help, counseling, help them work through the situations so that they can become productive members of society. It's going to take a while, because you know, this of course doesn't happen overnight.
Once we have a general education base that, knowing that when bad things happen to children they need to get help, we will be creating stronger South Dakotans. That will actually have an impact on our healthcare system, it'll have an impact, hopefully, on the number of children receiving good education in our public and private schools. It will also have an impact on our workforce as we create stronger workers and healthier people. It's actually quite exciting. Creating trauma informed communities means that we're creating a stronger South Dakota.
If you're just tuning in, my guest is Carrie Sanderson. She's director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment at the University of South Dakota. A lot of this coming from the results of the Jolene Law's Task Force in 2014. Carrie, I'm wondering if we can be specific about the most impactful response. For anyone who's listening and a child comes and talks to them, what's the first thing that you need to do?
Thank you for asking that question. The first thing that you need to do, is look at the child directly, tell them it's not their fault. Tell them that you believe them, and then you call your local law enforcement officer. What we like to tell people, it's hard to talk about child sexual abuse and child maltreatment, but you can be prepared ahead of time. Think through how you'd respond to a child who's disclosing to you or telling you about bad things that have happened to them. Make sure that you look at the child with a reassuring, caring and positive outlook, so that even if there is a situation where the child will need other help or other resources, they know that they can trust the adult that they're confiding in. That is essential, that first exposure, making sure the child is comfortable will really set the stage for what's going to happen moving forward.
Then, the second thing that you can do is be knowledgeable about the resources in your community, be knowledgeable about what to do in terms of calling law enforcement or calling medical providers and you can find more information about that on the center's website, and I'd be happy to give that to you. It's www.sdcpcm.com. Again, that's www.sdcpcm.com. There's also information on the CDC website and the State of South Dakota's website for both the Department of Health and also Department of Social Services.
We'll put a link up on our website as well so you can find that website easily, and we're at listen.sdpb.org. My guest, Carrie Sanderson, director of the Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment at USD. I'm fascinated by that, just the simple thought of thinking about it right now, how would you respond, and planning your response. I mean, the shock and pain of hearing that from a child could overwhelm an adult pretty quickly. You might say something that was not the most effective thing to say, so plan for it. That's really good advice. Let's close with a little bit of prevention. What can the rest of us do to really work on prevention of childhood maltreatment for the kids that are in our lives that we know?
Be aware of your surroundings. Be aware of where sexual abuse can occur and where other types of maltreatment can occur. Really, educating yourself on adverse childhood experiences, knowing what type of experiences could cause harm in a child's life, and at that point, getting a child help if they have a certain number of adverse childhood experiences. We cannot control all of life and all of our surroundings, but if you have the education of what to do when that harm occurs, then you can absolutely start the healing process for that child and for the family.