When "Monica" was told her child had been sexually abused by a family friend, she sobbed and, for about five minutes, didn't believe it was true.
Then she turned to Washington County Children Services caseworker Ginger Davey and said, "What do we need to do?"
Monica, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her child's identity, is an example of how caseworkers like Davey hope parents will react in cases of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way.
"For one, they just think they know the person well enough, and they can't imagine them doing it," said Davey, who specializes in sexual abuse cases at the local office.
Monica said her disbelief stemmed from the idea that something like that could have happened to her child.
"I was just kind of numb. I wasn't really thinking anything," she said. "You don't see it at the time. (But then) it just kind of clicked.
About this series in The Marietta Times
- Today: A look at the reactions to abuse parents often have and why. Also, an examination of the role of law enforcement in child sex abuse cases.
- Tuesday: Solutions for families to heal and resources that can help.
- Previously:?Friday, victims' stories; Weekend, a look at child predators and why they target their victims, signs abuse is happening, what to do. Stories available at www.mariettatimes.com.
Tips for parents of children who have been sexually abused
- Maintain consistency. Keep normal routines, usual discipline, everyday chores, etc. But be prepared for difficult days and excuse them from a particular chore or activity, then review the situation the next day so life can get back to normal for the child and you.
- When your child has questions, answer them as honestly as possible. Make a commitment to telling your child the truth and expecting the same of them. Remember that you may not have all the answers, so if your child asks why the abuse happened, be honest and admit that you do not know.
- Reassure your child that what happened is not his fault. You may need to do this daily.
- Reassure your child you do and always will love her.
- Let your child know you believe him and are proud of him for telling about the abuse when he did.
- Avoid questioning your child about the abuse. She will talk when ready to share. When your child does want to talk about it, set some ground rules. Let her know you will listen as long as you can but you may not be able to hear everything at one time. You may need to stop the conversation and collect yourself, as details can be overwhelming at times.
- Keep your behavior and words in check. Children may follow their parents' lead and can become upset or feel unsafe if their parents are yelling, screaming, making threats or emotionally out of control.
- Be prepared for everyone to have days when they feel like crying or when anger may seem to take over. A long walk or run can provide stress relief.
- Seek a qualified counselor for your child, yourself and other family members to help deal with what has happened. Individual, family or group counseling may be recommended.
Source: Washington County Children Services.
"My feelings for (the abuser) died when (Davey) told me what it was about," Monica said.
She was shocked to learn that a man she'd known for years, who seemed to share the same values she did, turned out to be sexually abusing her child. But she didn't believe Davey would have come to her if she wasn't sure it was necessary.
"He was a likable guy. If you needed help, he would help you," Monica said. "But that was all just a cover-up."
Having the support of a parent is critical in helping a child deal with abuse, said Alice Stewart, intake assessment unit supervisor at children services and a former sexual abuse caseworker.
"You could have a more severe case where the child is less traumatized than the victim of a minor sex abuse case where the parent does not" believe them, she said.
That's unthinkable to Monica - "I sure as hell ain't going to take some sicko's word over my child's word," she said - but Stewart said it does happen, especially when the abuser is a spouse or significant other to the parent.
"There are cases that we have right now where the non-offending parent is not believing their child. They're choosing the offender over the child," Stewart said.
Davey said in some cases, the abuser may be the breadwinner for the family. In other instances, the non-abusing parent may get the idea that if the victimized child is removed from the home, the problem will be solved, she said.
"Everything becomes chaotic. Everything is just in upheaval. People just want to get their life back," Stewart said.
Lee Ann Bates, Private Violence Project counselor at children services, has dealt with parents who take that view.
"Am I successful in changing their minds? Not usually," she said. "She's got more to lose if she believes this than if she denies it.
"And probably about four or five of my cases, there's just an adamant disbelief on the parent's side, even when it's substantiated," Bates said. "It just throws me every time."
In five years here, Bates said she's only encountered one false accusation, and that was by a teenager, not a younger child.
"They don't have the imagination to make these things up," she said.
Parents may also be reluctant to pursue charges out of shame or embarrassment at not protecting their child. Monica struggled with these feelings, even if they didn't dissuade her from going forward.
"Forever I will feel guilty about what happened. ... Because I brought him into our lives," she said.
The stigma associated with sexual abuse can also be a deterrent. Monica said she encountered some resistance from members of her extended family.
"They don't want people looking down on their family," she said.
Attention these cases get in the media may also make people hesitant, Monica said. Errors reported, either as a result of officials releasing incorrect information or mistakes by the media, caused members of her family to question her claims, she said.
Children services also carries a stigma, but Monica had nothing but praise for the people who worked with her.
"People need to stop being afraid of them, because they've got no reason to," she said. "Unless they're doing something wrong."
Kerry Blair, a Marietta magician who performs at schools for the National Child Safety Council, said his show includes a "good touch, bad touch" component, and occasionally a child will ask what to do if they tell a family member or trusted adult about abuse and aren't believed.
"Then you need to tell somebody else. And you need to tell somebody else. And you need to keep telling somebody ... until somebody believes you, somebody hears you and somebody does something to help you," he said.
And when parents do believe their children, the way they react is also important.
If a child tells them something about abuse or they suspect abuse is happening, the parent might have to ask a few questions, but they should leave as much of it as possible to a trained interviewer, Stewart said. If multiple people continue to ask a child the same questions over and over, he or she may change their answer in an effort to find the response they think the adults want, rather than giving an accurate account of events.
As horrifying as a revelation of sexual abuse can be, parents should do their best to control their reactions, Stewart said.
"If you start screaming and yelling and breaking things," the child might be too afraid to keep going forward, she said.
If a parent believes their child may have been abused but isn't sure, they should still contact children services, Stewart said. It doesn't automatically mean that someone will get in trouble.
"If you think ... that something may have happened to your child, call," Davey said.