Once, sitting next to her mother in the car, she’d said her prayer out loud.
“Please just divorce him.”
“I’m working on it,” her mother had said. First, she needed to save more money.
“I could give you a reason.” Carls felt certain her mother knew that something, something she didn’t know how to say herself, was wrong. But they rode on in silence, and for years her prayers went unanswered.
Where was her stepfather now? Carls had no idea. By the time she’d been able to understand the crimes he’d committed against her, it was too late to press charges.
Now, here at the Ray School, listening to Pam Graham, Carls felt unsettled. Is it ever a good time to press charges? One of Carls’ classroom parents was in the throes of a trial herself. During a recent parent-teacher conference, Melody Dillard (who also asked that a pseudonym be used to protect her family) had told Carls about the searing experience of testifying against her childhood abuser, about the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from some parents, the rejection and even rage from others.
“I don’t know why we’re not dealing with sexual abuse,” Carls blurted, feeling suddenly clear. “Sexual abuse is part of my history, and I don’t want it to be part of other people’s histories.”
Graham listened carefully. Several months before, she’d been trained as a crisis-line volunteer for the region’s domestic and sexual violence advocacy center, called WISE, and she’d learned how to receive a disclosure. On one of her first calls, she had found herself in the local ER, at 3:30 a.m., with a teenage girl who’d just been raped. When Graham arrived, the nurse had shrugged. “She’s in the shower,” she’d said.
How could an ER nurse not know a rape victim should not shower until after the exam? Graham had wondered. How can we still know so little?
“Keeping it a secret didn’t work,” Susanna Carls was saying to her now. “I had hinted a lot, wishing someone would point blank ask me. I’d hoped someone else would bring it up. It took more than 20 years to get healthy again. Maybe it could’ve been only two.”
Maybe, argue sexual assault prevention educators, it could never have happened at all.
Reports of child sexual abuse have dropped 58 percent in the last two decades, says leading researcher, Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. More education, media exposure, and awareness, better law enforcement, better offender treatment and victim support, better psycho-pharmaceuticals, all have contributed to reductions. But even with the progress made, the numbers are still staggering: an estimated one in four U.S. girls, one in six boys, has been sexually abused, and children with disabilities are at higher risk. Over the age of 18, the CDC says, 18 percent of women (and one percent of men) report having been raped, reflecting the shared cultural status of women and children, a cultural status that supports epidemic levels of sexual violence against them both. It is statistically likely that every one of us is connected to people—colleagues, friends, and neighbors—who’ve experienced child sexual abuse, whether we hear about it or not. Of every 100 incidents of child sexual abuse, it is estimated that only 10 to 18 are reported to authorities.