By Mannix Porterfield
Ten years ago, a woman took a group of professionals aback with a highly personal inquiry.
To their chagrin, she challenged each of them to stand up and discuss their first sexual encounter.
“And be very specific,” the woman demanded.
Margaret O’Neal, representing United Way of Southern West Virginia, related the incident Thursday at a news conference called to heighten awareness of child abuse and sexual exploitation.
And now for the punchline.
“That’s exactly what we ask children to do who have been sexually abused or molested,” O’Neal said.
“We ask them to stand up, not one time, not two times, often four, five, or six or 10 times. Tell the professionals, tell the police, tell the judges, tell the prosecutors.”
O’Neal lauded child advocacy centers for making a difference in getting abused children help.
“That woman demonstrated courage 10 years ago,” she said.
“We ask you to demonstrate that courage today. We ask to look around in the tough places. Look around in your church groups, and your scouting groups and your play groups, and your kindergartens and have the courage to listen if a child comes to you and presents a story to you and they seek your help.”
O’Neal acknowledged it isn’t easy to get involved in such horrific crimes.
“If they have the courage to do it, surely as adults we have the courage to do things,” she said.
O’Neal was among several helping the Child and Youth Advocacy Center and Just For Kids Inc. launch a statewide effort known as “One With Courage” to inspire others to speak up when child abuse is suspected.
Scott Miller, executive director of Just For Kids, told reporters that a mere 10 percent of all children swept up in such horrid circumstances have the courage to speak up.
“Our job is to try to increase those numbers so that children who are experiencing that abuse will speak up,” he said.
“It takes all of us and people in the community learning how to listen to children, knowing what to do with that information, who to talk to, how to get information to authorities to investigate.”
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said all must come together to help children, whether it’s individual abuse of a child, or drug misuse, or an atmosphere of domestic violence, or harm by guns.
“We cannot do that if there’s a fear of coming forward and discussing them, whether it’s a drug addict who has a fear of coming forward in an AA meeting and discussing his or her problem which is vital to finding a solution and getting off on the right foot to repairing their lives,” the 3rd District congressman said.
Child abuse is no different than other manifestations of damaged lives, he said.
“This is where I think that Just For Kids is playing a vital role,” Rahall said, noting that Miller and his staff last year looked into 600 cases of suspected abuse and helped identify many children.
While guns are grabbing headlines in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary carnage, Rahall said many other issues engulfing children are just as important in protecting those too young to fend for themselves.
In his four terms as Fayette County’s sheriff, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, dealt with many cases of child abuse, and suggested children at times are reluctant to speak up because they enter the world trusting the family unit.
“I think the thing that I find amazing is those that sometimes we turn to can ultimately be the ones that let us down and can, in fact, be the abusers,” he said.
“I think you just reflect back at the dependent nature of children as it relates to adults. When you get into abusive situations, it just literally turns their worlds upside down. That has something to do with the reluctance. A lot of times the source of these problems is where the stability normally should come from.”
Laird said societal attitudes have changed for the better from the old days when children were taken to police stations and called on in an intimidating atmosphere to share the dark secrets of abuse.
“Not too long ago we generally had a societal attitude that what occurred within the framework of the family was where it stayed,” the senator said.
“It is all of our business. I can think of nothing more important than the collective responsibility we share to protect the children who constitute the future of our area.”
Roger Lockridge, program coordinator for the Child and Youth Advocacy Center in Lewisburg, described himself as the survivor of child abuse in a domestic violence environment.
“I know firsthand how these children feel and how tough it can be to disclose even once your account of what happened in your situation,” he said.
“We had to disclose over 10 times between law enforcement, schools, medical professionals, etc. It makes a world of difference to only have to talk about it once.”
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