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Central Delaware
Home not a safe place for abused kids

DOVER — Earl Bradley and Jerry Sandusky are names the public recognizes as predators.

But there are scores of less recognized names committing child abuse every day.

And many are relatives or people who shares the homes of the children they are abusing. Children’s Advocacy Center of Delaware officials said these abusers account for nearly 85 percent of cases.

In Fiscal Year 2012, the CAC investigated 1,302 cases of reported child sex abuse cases — about 3.5 per day.

“People are not aware of how prevalent the problem is,” CAC Executive Director Randall E. Williams said.

While the CAC conducted 250 interviews related to the investigation of Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley during a 2011 process that led to 14 life sentences for sexually abusing dozens of children, there were more than 1,400 other interviews conducted during the same 12 month period.

“The community is aware of the Earl Bradley and Jerry Sandusky (the former Penn State football coach imprisoned for the serial molestation and rape of minors) cases because they get the press, but generally the public is not aware of the majority of the occurrences involving a situation at home,” said Mr. Williams.

Officials did point to the Bradley case, however, as serving as a statewide rally point to increase educational programs and stiffen laws to thwart future occurrences of sex abuse of helpless and innocent kids.

Studies have determined that only 1 in 10 cases of sexual abuse are reported when they occur. As the victims grow and become more willing to talk as adults, interviews reveal that one in four females and one in six males will be a victim by the age of 18.

Estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of the time an older child is the abuser, which puts cases in the Family Court system.

Strides have been made in increasing public awareness and discussion of safeguarding children from potential abusers in positions of trust — church leaders, coaches and teachers.

But the greatest challenge lies in how to curb awful crimes that occur in what should be a safe haven — a home.

A review of central Delaware arrest warrants over several months showed that incestuous and abusive relationships reach prosecution level not every day, but often weekly.

Statistics indicate the offenses occur daily, and are generally undetected.

In January, charges came against a man accused of drinking on family movie nights and then fondling his daughters in a case where he admitted to investigators he knew it was wrong.

The offenses went on for six months, according to charging documents filed by the Delaware State Police.

Another scenario involved parents arriving home to find their son sexually penetrating his younger sister on a couch; after discussion, they decided not to contact police.

Unfortunately, the mother learned years later that her husband had been involved in sexual assault and she sought police involvement. The offenses were listed in court records as occurring over a two-year period between 2005-07.

A state police investigation proceeded, and the son was later charged with nearly 100 counts of second-degree rape, and the father was facing an unlawful sexual contact in a case that also involved liberties taken against a second female in the family.

On Jan. 21, Milford police arrested a 17-year-old male in connection with alleged sexual assaults that occurred with a 13-year-old female relative at a residence. According to detectives, the suspect had forced the victim to engage in sexual acts numerous times and was charged with two counts of second-degree rape and incest. Police said the case was still being investigated and more charges may follow.

‘Profound betrayal of trust’

While any origin — family or otherwise — of sexual abuse is horrific in nature, the path to discovery, treatment and prosecution is often pocked with a complexity of issues when relatives are both victim and suspect.

“It is a profound betrayal of trust for a person who has been abused by someone who has a significant relationship in his or her life,” said Deputy Attorney General Patty Dailey Lewis, director of the state justice department’s Family Division.

A family’s fabric can be ripped apart by claims of incest, when members can potentially take sides against each other on who to believe, or be destroyed emotionally and/or financially when a bread-winner goes to jail or children are taken from the home for their safety.

Ms. Lewis said that very rarely are both parents involved in the direct sexual abuse, but a non-participating partner may be unaware of the abuse, overlooking it for fear of family destruction or hoping that a perpetrator will change his ways with continued confrontation.

Confrontation within the home rarely works, the Delaware Children’s Department said.

In fact, a seemingly innocent parent can be found guilty of the crimes of endangering the welfare of a child and/or conspiracy depending how much they knew of the offenses.

Delaware has a broad mandatory law that requires anyone with a reasonable suspicion to report their concerns to the 24-hour Division of Family Services hotline at 1-800-292-9582.

“It is a crime that is almost always preventable if kids know warning signs and are in an environment where they can go to a trusted adult,” Ms. Lewis said.

Regrettably, fewer than 30 percent of parents ever discuss sexual abuse issues with their children, the AG’s office said. That leads to a significant barrier in disclosure due to the minor’s unfamiliarity with exactly what is happening to them.

Ms. Lewis said she was encouraged by society’s progress in more open discussion, which was seen as a cultural taboo until at least the mid-1970s.

Gradually, professional articles and training began to expand the awareness that sex abuse was all too frequent but rarely acknowledged.

“There was a tremendous cultural aversion to this, even in the psychology community and other fields and organizations that could make a difference,” Ms. Lewis said.

Center for children

Kent County Children’s Advocacy Center Coordinator Diane M. Klecan, a forensic interviewer, and staff are a central part of the state’s Multi-Disciplinary Child Abuse Intervention and Response Model the state uses to limit a child’s rehashing of trauma to multiple agencies.

CAC interviewers conduct one on one discussion with the minors in their Dover, Wilmington and Georgetown offices, and other entities such as the Delaware Children’s Department, Department of Justice, law enforcement agencies, medical and mental health services representative watch via closed circuit-television in a separate room.

The interviews are recorded on DVDs and available immediately to the state to be used as evidence.
As a 501(c) (3) nonprofit, the CAC debuted in Delaware in 1996 to operate without any undue influence of the government and serves as an impartial means to reaching whatever the truth may be.

There’s a financial advantage to funding a CAC, which operates in 700 locations nationwide after being jump-started by Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer Jr. in Huntsville in the mid-1980s. A CAC brochure said a typical multidisciplinary team case handled through its non-profit costs an average of $2,902, compared to $3,949 for a non-CAC based investigation, a savings of 36 percent.

Not to be believed

Getting to the heart of the matter, literally, is a professional challenge for Ms. Klecan and other interviewers. While the CAC speaks with kids in all stages of investigation of prosecution, including ones with full confessions already rendered, most are in the initial phase.

An interview is conducted without the presence of a parent or significant other who may continue to intimidate implicitly or explicitly if under suspicion.

“When you’re talking about someone in the home being involved, kids always fear not being believed,” Ms. Klecan said. “They often believe what the perpetrator tells them, such as ‘All this is your fault,’ ‘I will go to jail,’ or ‘You will be in big trouble if you say anything.’
“Anything that’s important to a child, the perpetrator will use against them.”

The victim’s young nature requires a delicate touch when presented to various agencies involved with a case. Law enforcement will not identify a victim if a press release is issued at all, in an attempt to maintain privacy for those innocents affected.

“There should be a certain sensitivity and the approach should be mindful of an age-appropriate response when dealing with the vulnerable part of the population such as children and those with disabilities,” said Maureen Monagle, coordinator of the state’s Criminal Justice Council.

Ms. Monagle pointed to Delaware’s small size as a benefit to quick coordination of agencies familiar with each other and how to mutually assist in resolving a troubling situation as best possible.

The CAC attempts to elicit all pertinent information during one interview, which is conducted in a child-friendly setting after assurances of safety and support for their needs have been communicated. While toys and other youth-oriented materials are provided in the waiting room, a chair and comfortable couch are offered in a sparsely filled interview room to limit distractions as conversations begin.

Located nearby is a locked chest of anatomical dolls of three different skin tones that can help children explain clothing, positioning or penetration issues. “Most of the time the dolls are not used, and they’re only brought out if the first part of the interview warrants it,” Ms. Klecan said. “A doll is another tool that’s available, but not always necessary.”

Those options include a large easel and paper available if drawing something is easier than talking about it; kids can also write their feelings into a diary-style form if needed.

In a room next door, various agency members watch the discourse live as they fill in the blanks to a proper response ranging from criminal charges to foster care options and planning mental health treatment and support system that’s key to recovery.

“A synergy develops around the table as to what steps can be taken in a holistic manner to best benefit the child’s welfare,” said the CAC’s Mr. Williams.

Perpetrators engage in a planned approach of “grooming” to gain a position of trust with a potential victim and estrange the minor from anyone they might turn to for help. Isolating a child physically and emotionally is a hallmark of predatory tactics.

By the time physical contact occurs and escalates, experts report, the child already has been manipulated and confused. Previously learned proper behavior has likely been eradicated through a gradual process of deceit.

“In a family setting, prevention is geared generically toward teaching kids about good touch, bad touch and confusing touch,” said Dr. Victoria Kelly, director of the Delaware Children’s Department.
“Children are pretty good about knowing a ‘bad touch’ when they are hit or hurt. The ‘confusing touch’ is where the child can become unsure of appropriate boundaries.
“The abuser is very good at garnering trust and creating secrecy through a wall of trust.”

Once the secret is out and prosecution completed, there’s still the tragedy of a child who will likely need extensive counseling to heal emotional wounds caused by often years of abuse.

Contact Lifeline counselor Cheryl Wilson, whose nonprofit has offices in Milford and Wilmington, said treatment is much more complex with intra-familial abuses. Factors include how early in life the abuse occurred, its frequency and the relationship with the criminal abuser.

“If a stranger is involved there’s a far shorter healing process, said Ms. Wilson, who primarily works with adolescents 12 and older. “Families are a complex issue because of the element of authority and power involved in a young person’s life.
“There’s a lot of confusion because you’re taught from an early age to obey, listen to and respect people in positions of authority and trust.
“Kids may initially feel that they’re really betraying the people they love and who they love the most. Some treatments and healing processes may take years.”

A holistic approach

Dover Police Department Victim Services Specialist Diane Glenn described the team process as a “village that comes together” and said “We do things very differently than 20 years ago.” She pointed to Survivors of Abuse and Recovery, and Darkness to Light programs as significant initiatives to increase services to victims.

The month of April has been designated nationally as Sexual Assault Awareness month, and Delaware will learn more from two events soon afterward — on May 1 at the Dover Sheraton Hotel and May 2 at Cape Henlopen High near Lewes. The keynote speaker will be Marilyn Van Derbur, the former Miss America 1958 who was sexually abused by her father for years and later founded the American Coalition for Abuse Awareness and One Voice.

Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden and his office have taken a significant stand against child abusers, through toughened laws in the Delaware Code and community outreach designed to educate the public and further public discussion. In 2012, Mr. Biden and legislators established strong protections and stiffer penalties through Senate Bill 234 that Gov. Jack A. Markell signed into law last June.

“Our laws to protect children and punish abusers cannot truly be effective unless they address the distinct nature of this crime, its perpetrators and their young victims,” Mr. Biden said last summer in the midst of turning misdemeanors into felonies and especially protecting children with intellectual or developmental disabilities and those 3 and younger.

Approximately 15 Department of Justice staff members are certified facilitators in the Stewards of Children program that trains adults to learn the signs of abuse and then act to report suspicions to proper authorities.

There are currently more than 60 facilitators throughout the state, with educational institutions University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College and Wilmington University committed to expanding the manpower involved.

The Stewards of Children is a three-hour program available to adults that includes a DVD presentation and a $10 cost for a workbook. Prevent Child Abuse Director Karen K. DeRasmo said the program has a goal to train 35,000 Delawareans by March 2016.

Ultimately, Ms. DeRasmo said, the educational programs and expanded public discussion are the best remedy for combating sexual abuse that occurs behind the closed doors of home when allegedly responsible adults are indeed the problem.

“The first aim is to educate adults on childhood sexual abuse issues,” Ms. DeRasmo said. “With that training, they can prevent, recognize and react responsibly to childhood sexual abuse wherever it is occurring.”

So far, more than 7,600 Delawareans have completed the course since the end of 2011, said YMCA Director of the Stewards of Children’s program Nikki Mowbray, including 1,000 people through online training. The program was created by the Darkness to Light organization and funded with a grant awarded by the Delaware Community Foundation.

Adults trained in detecting possible abuse signs, and red flags for suspicious behavior, is a key, Ms. Mowbray said.

“It is so pervasive, and until we get to the point in society where people will say ‘No I’m not going to settle for this’ and take steps to train themselves for awareness will the rates be driven down,” Ms. Mowbray said.

Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or canderson@newszap.com. Follow @DSNAnderson on Twitter.

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