Shyra Williams, program director for the Children’s Advocacy Center, said the number of new children the center has seen has continued to increase for several years a similar amount as in 2017.
“Over the last three years, our numbers have systematically increased at that rate,” Williams said.
For 17 years, the CAC interviewed around 340 children per year. In 2017, the center interviewed 500 children. Those 500 cases are only the new ones, not including children that have been receiving therapy for previous issues or incidents or those still going through court proceedings from past crimes.
“In one quarter, we see 800 kids,” Williams said.
Of those 800 children, between 85 and 90 percent of those cases are children that are victims of criminal sexual conduct. The other 10 to 15 percent of children the CAC sees can have been victims of human trafficking or witnessed violent crimes, among other reasons.
While the CAC has increased its prevention efforts over the last decade, Executive Director Darcy Komejan said the highly publicized court proceedings of ex-doctor Larry Nassar and the #MeToo social media movement have also contributed to the increase in cases the CAC has seen.
“I certainly believe the #MeToo movement has increased the awareness of child sexual abuse and the prevalence of it,” Komejan said. “People are talking about it, which is one of the last cultural taboos. Parents are potentially talking to their kids more about it, and teens certainly are seeing it on social media.”
In order to handle the increased caseload, the CAC has had to hire an emergency staff member. This is the first time in 20 years an emergency hire was necessary, Williams said.
“Shyra came to me and said we had a waiting list, and that’s just not acceptable to me,” Komejan said. “I said we’ve got to do whatever it takes to support that new position. No child should have to wait for therapy.”
Along with three new staff members, the CAC has also doubled the number of internships it offers, from three to six for the year.
“If we can’t provide supportive services, we have no business being here,” Komejan said. “You can’t ask a child to be that brave and then not provide supportive services.”
Children can come to the CAC via several avenues, including after a crime is reported to law enforcement or if a teacher reports suspected abuse to Child Protective Services. Any time a child in involved in a crime, that child is interviewed by a CAC professional while a police officer is present.
Those interviews are recorded on video and can be used in court against any potential perpetrators. Doctors, prosecutors, school nurses and counselors and other mandatory abuse reporters can also suggest a child be interviewed at the CAC.
“The best visual is to look at the advocacy center as the center of a wheel,” Komejan said. “We’re the place where all the spokes come together to take care of a family and child.
“Law enforcement observes every single forensic interview and meets with us before the interviews so we make sure we have as much information as possible. All those people come here to have the strongest possible investigative materials possible.”
Previously unheard of, the advocacy center now runs two interviews at the same time on a regular basis. The CAC has also implemented a new screening process for children that may not have been involved in a crime, but were recommended to the center for having sexual knowledge far greater than would be expected for their age range.
These behaviors can include drawing genitalia or engaging in sexual play. Those children may not need a forensic interview, but therapy can be necessary. Those types of assessments have grown from 20 per year to 80.
Along with new programs, the CAC recently finished expanding its facilities at 12125 Union St. in Holland. The space was ready on April 1, and the center is having an open house on May 23 to celebrate the new opportunities that come with the added room.
“With the expansion, all these spaces were reclaimed as therapy spaces,” Williams said. “We have a Sensory Motor Arousal Regulation Treatment (SMART) room now, and that’s been amazing to see how quickly it helps children learn how to regulate themselves again.
“We can’t ask them to process the traumatic material until they feel safe. It’s too scary.”
The advocacy center also has a new expressive art studio, which Williams said is a place for children to “make a mess and create something that speaks of their trauma.”
While the increase in reported abuses against children is concerning to Komejan, she said it’s not a shock. Only one in 10 abused children will speak about what’s happened to them, and Komejan is hoping that prevention and a larger societal spotlight on the issue is a positive step to increasing the number of children that open up.
“We aren’t surprised a bit by the numbers,” Komejan said. “It is and should be alarming to everyone. But, we’re pleased that the numbers are showing more children coming forward, that a child now has the opportunity to heal. They felt safe enough to come forward.
“I don’t think that people need to be fearful that there are more offenders, it’s that the community is more open and people are able to tell their stories.”
For those wishing to support the CAC, a wish list of what children and teens need at the center is available online at cac-ottawa.org/donate. Organizations and businesses that want training on how to spot and prevent child abuse can sign up for the advocacy center’s “Darkness to Light” prevention training. That, Komejan said, is the key to seeing the number of new cases decrease over time.
“The obvious thing we have to continue to focus on prevention,” she said. “Those numbers have to go down. Our dream is that every adult in Ottawa County is trained on prevention so we can see a decrease in those numbers. We need people to get involved and talk about these things with their families.”
“Hundreds of girls could have been spared if the mandated reporters had done their jobs when it came to Nassar. I would like to see us focus on that in the county. Shyra has also make sure her staff has the best training to provide kids treatment.”