Seven-year-old Sarah suddenly seemed withdrawn and tired. She started to wake up with bad dreams and was wetting the bed for the first time in years. A letter from school expressed concern about her progress in class. Sarah's parents were worried.
When Sarah told them that she had been sexually abused by a trusted family member they were devastated.
Sarah spent the next few weeks making the rounds, from the hospital emergency room to the police station, from a child welfare program to a psychologist's office. She was forced to relive the abuse again and again, telling her story to one stranger after another.
The year was 1994.
Safe Horizon is the country's largest provider of supportive and healing services, from the youngest to the oldest victims of crime and violence. Through our experience we knew that what happened to Sarah was all too common -- and that society's response was not only lacking, in many cases it was re-traumatizing victims. So we took the lead in finding a better way.
That same year, we published a report that would forever change the way we respond to child abuse in New York City and across the country. The Child Sexual Abuse Public Policy Project and Multidisciplinary Response Protocol found that, on average, each child victim had to tell his or her story to eight different people. As a result, children and families often experienced additional trauma, often feeling blamed for their own victimization.
And so in 1996 -- together with many partners including those in city government -- we brought a better solution to New York City by opening a unique safe haven for abused children in Brooklyn. It was called a "fully co-located" Child Advocacy Center and it was the first of its kind in New York and in the country.
Finally, children could come to just one office and be interviewed only once, by a professional trained to help a child feel safe and secure instead of re-victimized. Bringing together child protective services, police, district attorneys and medical experts allows children like Sarah and their parents to receive treatment, information and justice -- all under one roof.
We kept building from that success, and today there are four Child Advocacy Centers across New York City. In 2015, we will add a fifth, bringing healing and justice to the children of all five boroughs.
Preventing child abuse is important, but we also needed to find better ways to help those who have been victimized. So when the Yale Child Study Centerneeded a partner to test a new model of treatment, Safe Horizon embraced the opportunity. The results were incredible and life-altering for thousands of our youngest survivors. Studies have shown that a focused burst of therapy reduces the long-term traumatic impact of abuse 73 percent more than traditional treatments. That means fewer nightmares, fewer flashbacks and fewer panic attacks for those who received the treatment.
Our ongoing partnership with Yale means that our experts are traveling the country to help implement this life-changing model to help millions more children thrive and live hopeful lives over the years to come.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a reminder that there is much work to do.
Despite our best efforts, child abuse still damages millions of lives every year. We must continue to improve our responses when one in 10 children suffers from maltreatment and one in 16 suffers from sexual abuse.
Last year, at Safe Horizon's CACs, we provided over 7,700 children and their families with the support and counseling to turn tragedy into a hopeful new beginning.
Child abuse occurs in families of every race and ethnicity, socio-economic class and geographic location. Many of us may assume that it doesn't happen to us or people we might know, but, given the statistics, it's very likely that you know at least one survivor without even realizing it. Abuse, sexual and physical, is a crime that often remains hidden.
A future without child abuse.
I believe that a world without child abuse is possible -- but it will take all of us working together to achieve that dream.
We can collect and share resources to educate ourselves and each other.
We can spread best practices that are showing real results.
We can learn the signs of abuse.
We can help spread messages that help victims find the courage to come forward.
We can remember what to do if we think that a child has been abused:
- Keep calm;
- Tell the child you believe them;
- Show interest and concern;
- Reassure and support the child;
- Report the abuse to 9-1-1 if the child is in immediate danger or to the National Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
We can hold our elected officials accountable by demanding that they continue to support these life-saving programs, both with improved funding and through education and awareness.
Until we reach a society free from violence, Safe Horizon will continue to lead the way by pursuing responses that stop abuse, promote justice and help survivors to heal.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.