SYCAMORE – Signs of abuse are not all as obvious as bruises.
April is both Child Abuse Awareness Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Experts sat down for a roundtable discussion with the Daily Chronicle recently to discuss red flags people can watch for, upcoming events to raise awareness, and misconceptions surrounding these delicate topics.
As Lynnea Erickson-Laskowski, director of communication and prevention services for Safe Passage, pointed out, movements such as the #MeToo phenomenon have helped survivors of all genders and backgrounds, but there's a long way to go.
"We've seen how hesitant people are to believe survivors – how quick we are to write off their stories, how we want to look for holes, gaps and things we can blame them for," Erickson-Laskowski said. "Before we ever start to believe them, we have to try to punch as many holes in the story as possible."
She pointed out that Tuesday is Start By Believing Day, which encourages people to give survivors the benefit of the doubt. Why not, considering the court system gives people charged with crimes such treatment?
"Isn't that the $24 million question?" said Erickson-Laskowski's boss, Safe Passage Executive Director Mary Ellen Schaid.
What to watch for
The paradigm shift aside, the experts pointed out numerous signs of abuse. Survivors' performance at school might suffer. They might experience changes in sleep patterns and in the language they use. They might have reasons for changing their appearance and the clothing they wear.
"We've had many children tell us in their interview that they started wearing baggier, bulkier clothes so they look less attractive," said Holly Peifer, director of the Children's Advocacy Center at Family Service Agency of DeKalb County.
Sarah Slavenas, Family Service Agency's development director, said another telltale sign is when a child starts avoiding someone they previously had gravitated toward.
"When the abuse starts, the victim might suddenly be reticent to be around them," she said. "Perpetrators don't just groom victims but [also] the people around them. When someone you think is infallible, or highly respected, ends up being accused of something, it violates your own intuition. You thought your child was safe around that person, but you were wrong."
That's an important reasons that anyone affected by abuse should find someone to talk to about their experience.
"That child isn't the only one traumatized," Slavenas said. "It's the family, the friends, their siblings, their teachers – any adult who missed [that] this child is struggling. When they realize the dots are connected, they're traumatized."
What to do
Experts were quick to dispel the common misconception that if someone has the Department of Children and Family Services called to their home, they're going to lose custody of their child.
Slavenas said all social service agencies prefer that a child stay in their home.
"As long as a safety plan is put into place, the child can remain in that home, and that's usually what social service agencies strive to do," she said. "Children have such a powerful bond with their family."
Schaid said the bulk of abuse cases involve neglect, which often correlates with socioeconomic status. This presents a challenge, since most administrators are in different circumstances.
"Look at who's sitting around the table: We're all white, female, middle-aged and educated," said Tynisha Clegg, recently named FSA's executive director. "That can be a barrier. We don't look like them."
A partnership and grant was approved at the March 23 DeKalb City Council meeting, which will allow local agencies to hire a part-time caseworker who also would coordinate other activities at the University Village apartment complex in the Annie Glidden North neighborhood, where more than 80 percent of residents receive government assistance to pay rent. In fact, the worker could be hired from within the complex, Clegg said.
As part of the redevelopment agreement for University Village, the city has $33,333 a year to spend for social service delivery over 15 years, records show.
Agencies such as FSA, Adventure Works, DeKalb County Gardens, the Kish Work Network and Kishwaukee College all are involved in the partnership, and that caseworker will help residents tap into resources they might not have known exist.
"Then they tell their neighbors, their kids' friends – 'This is someone you can trust,' " Clegg said.
Anyone who witnesses signs of neglect or outright abuse can make an anonymous report when they call 800-25-ABUSE.
"Don't err on the side of caution," Peifer said. "Err on the side of the child. You don't need evidence. All you need is suspicion."
Slavenas said calling DCFS isn't always the preferred option. If there's clear evidence something isn't right, she urges people to call the police.
Learning how to talk
Erickson-Laskowski said from the time children have basic comprehension skills, parents should be modeling appropriate behavior.
"If your brother is tickling you, and you said no, he needs to stop," she said. "Ask your children whether they want a hug goodnight, whether they want to kiss their aunt goodbye, or whether they'd rather wave. We need to model those behaviors in the home, so the child learns it's normal to say 'No.' As soon as your child begins to comprehend, they can learn about consent."
Peifer suggested several ways parents can talk to their children about touchy subjects: talk while cooking, while in the car, while going about everyday activities that don't feel like a deliberate attempt to tackle the elephant in the room – which can scare off children.
Even TV programs provide an opportunity.
"Something might come up on a show, and it's a great talking point," Peifer said. "You have to have that conversation repeatedly, and you have to start young."
It's tough to put a thumb on the pulse of abuse since so many agencies field reports. FSA, specifically, has seen a 25 percent-plus uptick in reported cases year over year as of March. The agency will put a blue-and-silver pinwheel along DeKalb Avenue for every active case.
"Hopefully that visual will help the community really grasp the sheer number of cases," Slavenas said.
"But don't forget, that's not necessarily a bad thing," Schaid said. "This means it's being reported, and children are becoming more aware they can talk about it."