CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE is never far from the headlines. The last two weeks have been no exception. Dylan Farrow’s open letter published online Feb. 1 in The New York Times stoked a firestorm of responses, from celebrities rushing to Woody Allen’s defense to survivors of child sexual abuse responding in support of Farrow with their own stories.
In the flurry of Twitter updates, Facebook statuses and blog posts about Farrow’s letter, however, a few facts got lost. The following facts can’t tell us what happened when Farrow was a child, but they can help us be more informed and considerate when responding to children and adult victims who come forward to talk about the abuse they’ve suffered.
â€¢ Only 2 percent to 8 percent of rape reports are actually false. This is no different from any other violent crime. Despite media depictions that false reports are rampant, or that rape allegations are a way to exact revenge or get a famous person’s money or ruin someone’s future or reputation, studies demonstrate that only a small percentage of reports are false. And when we as a culture publicly disbelieve victims who have come forward, we communicate to other survivors they won’t be believed either.
â€¢ Child victims have difficultly disclosing sexual abuse, the least likely of all forms of abuse to be disclosed. Approximately 85 percent of child victims don’t tell or delay telling about sexual abuse. This is often because children are afraid of getting in trouble, they are afraid the offender will further harm them or someone they love, and they are most likely to have been abused by someone they know and trust. Because of these factors, there is a decreased likelihood that children will make false accusations.
â€¢ Abused children disclose in an adult world. Child victims of sexual abuse are expected to disclose as an adult might — clearly, consistently, and chronologically — yet most humans have memory difficulty associated with traumatic events.
Additional factors present challenges to an abused child’s disclosure.
A recent study of 250 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse found that nearly 25 percent of children recanted their story at one point. Other studies demonstrate high rates of delayed disclosure, and high rates of partial disclosure.
As soon as children disclose, they are forced into situations where they have to tell strangers what happened and when it happened, all while being unsure about what occurs next.
Since Farrow’s childhood, our society has made strides in child sexual abuse investigations. The creation of Children’s Advocacy Centers, where trained forensic investigators can interview children individually in child-friendly settings, has vastly improved the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases. In Maine, it is increasingly considered best practice for a child to be interviewed at a Children’s Advocacy Center.
We’ve also evolved regarding how we talk to our children about healthy relationships. It’s OK to talk to children about appropriate and inappropriate touching, about safe surprises and unsafe secrets, and to talk to them about their bodies and their own boundaries.
Talking about child sexual abuse is no longer only about the stereotypical “stranger in the van.” It’s about making sure children have the tools and the ability to tell the trusted adults in their lives if something is perpetrated against them.
Perhaps if Farrow had access to a Children’s Advocacy Center her story today would be much different. But children in Maine have that option, and we have the option to help prevent sexual violence against all people in our communities.
For more information about Children’s Advocacy Centers in Maine, visit www.cacmaine.org. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.
Cara Courchesne is communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and is writing on behalf of the Maine Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.