County tackles alarming number of child sex abuse cases
Slithering under the news-grabbing opioid and heroin epidemic is a pernicious trend of children being sexually assaulted and abused in Chautauqua County.
Statistics show one in 10 children in the county will be sexually abused before the age of 18; of which, 90 percent will know their perpetrator and 30-40 percent will be related.
According to Prevent Child Abuse New York, an Albany-based non-profit, nearly 270 allegations of child sex abuse were reported in Chautauqua County in 2016 compared to 239 in Allegany and Cattaraugus counties.
Similar-sized counties like Jefferson and Chemung reported 206 and 168 allegations, respectively.
While such reports to the Child Advocacy Program of Chautauqua County have decreased over the past few years, the problem is not seen as going away; rather, the bulk of abuses are thought to be unreported.
According to Sean Lennon, clinical mental health coordinator for CAP, the majority of child sex victims, who happen to be under the age of 12, never report their abuse.
Making matters worse, prosecuting those responsible remains a Herculean task, especially in the face of insufficient physical evidence or children often too young to provide credible testimony or understand what exactly happened to them.
Lennon said educating the public on signs of abuse and who exactly to contact is vital.
“Our numbers in the last two years indicate sex abuse is the No. 1 type of abuse being reported by far,” he said. “We have a greater responsibility to be more vigilant when we do see signs that a child may be a victim of sex abuse. Even though it’s a topic that makes people uncomfortable to talk about, it exists and we have a way to address it.”
Signs seen in children include mood swings, nightmares or sleep problems, a fear of certain people or places, or adult-like sexual behaviors like language and knowledge.
If sex abuse is suspected, people can contact their local police agency or the New York State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment at 1-800-342-3720.
In Chautauqua County, CAP will be notified of the reported abuse and a Multidisciplinary Team, composed of law enforcement, Child Protective Services, mental health services, the district attorney’s office and medical professionals, will conduct a coordinated response.
State resources are also continuing to support specially trained staff to interview victims of sexual and physical abuse.
Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Chautauqua County will receive just over $157,000 to support children.
“With this funding, child advocacy centers will be better equipped to partner with law enforcement to bring the abusers to justice while offering effective emotional support services to child victims and their families,” Cuomo said.
Lennon said there are several trained forensic interviewers in the county who conduct interviews for the district attorney’s office and law enforcement.
Forensic interviewers provide children with a safe place to share their story in their own words to experts. The purpose of the forensic interview is to obtain information that may be helpful in a criminal investigation and to assess the need for medical treatment and psychological care.
In terms of prosecuting suspects, Patrick Swanson, Chautauqua County district attorney, is hoping to add five additional prosecutors to his office over the next three years, one of whom will be dedicated to “Special Victims” cases, such as sexual assault, child abuse, Internet crimes against children and sex offender registration.
Lynn Schaffer, second assistant district attorney, is currently handling all child sex abuse cases for the county, a responsibility, she said, that’s only a “portion” of what she has to shoulder at the moment.
“In terms of numbers that have to be handled through our office, there are significantly more of them than what we are actually able to prosecute,” she said. “We get somewhere between six and two dozen referrals a month that we have to assess and investigate and make a charging decision on. Ideally, you would want a family coming in on an allegation of child abuse and a responsive prosecutor on each investigation. We have historically not been able to do that in every case. We meet with families in every case that we can, but it’s not sustainable.”
Schaffer said the complex and sensitive nature of these cases – not to mention, the psychological factors – can greatly hinder their progress.
“There is a psychological behavioral pattern in children that are abused called “Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome,” which means children do not tell right away,” she said. “It’s totally normal … it’s just how the human brain works when you’re a child and it usually happens when the child knows the abuser and trusts the abuser.”
Schaffer said this leads to a problem with proof when all you have is a child that tells of an incident well after it took place.
“That is what many of these cases look like and we work with (the Multidisciplinary Team) to dig up anything else that might be out there,” she continued.
Currently, victims of child sex abuse in New York state can only seek civil penalties against their abusers until the age of 18. A bill called the Child Victims Act, which aims to extend that age to 50, remains in limbo in the New York State Legislature.
For more information on child sex abuse in the area, visit the CAP website at www.capjustice.org or call 338-9844.
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