INDIANA — Hoosiers who read the headlines over the past several weeks may have picked up on an alarming piece of data: Indiana has the second highest rate in the nation for child abuse.
That's according to the 2017 Child Maltreatment report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The highest rate in the nation belongs to Kentucky.
For Indiana, that means 29,198 children were the subject of substantiated reports of child abuse in 2017. The overwhelming majority of those, 89.1 percent or 26,0006, were cases of child neglect. Although at a much lower rate, the second most common type of child abuse in Indiana that year is even more concerning: 2,675 children were reported as victims of sexual abuse. Nationally, more than 58,000 children reported such abuse.
"Child sexual abuse is a different animal than child physical abuse and child neglect, absolutely," said Sandy Runkle-DeLorme, director of programs for Prevent Child Abuse Indiana, or PCAIN.
"They’re each complicated in their own way, but child sexual abuse is probably the most complicated in terms of perpetration and in terms of how we want to prevent it."
While the Child Maltreatment report is disappointing, Runkle-DeLorme said there may be a less alarming reason for the high numbers. With increased awareness and improved services, it's likely that more people are reporting than in years past.
"So sometimes you see a spike before you start seeing a drop,” she said. "With that being said, it’s now time to drop."
PREVENTION AND INTERVENTION
Runkle-DeLorme and others are dedicated to making that happen through raising awareness, helping survivors and focusing efforts on prevention. To do that, PCAIN relies on roughly 45 prevention councils representing 59 counties in Indiana. The councils are meant to be grassroots groups that bring education about child sex abuse (among other issues) down to the local level.
Some of that education is a re-education. Runkle-DeLorme said myths like "stranger danger" have to be debunked. Children shouldn't talk to strangers, but the reality is that around 90 percent of child sex abuse is committed by a trusted person within or close to the child's family.
PCAIN also creates programming around non-abuse related topics, like firearm safety and drowning prevention. The idea is to buttress the health and safety of children by coming at it from all angles.
"We want them to be happy and healthy and safe, so really the minimum should be preventing child maltreatment," Runkle-DeLorme said. "We really want so much more."
Attacking another prong of the problem includes treatment for the abusers, particularly young abusers. Family & Children's Place CEO Pam Darnall said 30 to 40 percent of child sex abusers are older youth. Getting them help early on could decrease the chances of reoffending. The problem is a lack of funding sources and support of treatment for abusers, Darnall said.
"It's just one of the gaps."
After prevention comes intervention, which Family & Children's Place addresses through its child advocacy centers and counseling services. The advocacy center gives children a safe environment in which to report their abuse for use in criminal investigations. Darnall said such centers have been shown to reduce the cost of investigations by almost 50 percent. And with evidence-based practices, the centers help avoid re-traumatizing child victims.
Helping others cope with the trauma of child sex abuse is why News and Tribune columnist Amanda Beam shared her own story publicly for the first time in 2012.
Her memory of the timeline of when she was abused is foggy, an expected outcome of trauma at a young age. But Beam remembers being sexually abused by a family member at least 30 times during her childhood. The first person she told was a boyfriend when she was 16 years old and still living with her abuser. In college, free from that environment, she openly talked about the abuse to friends and started seeing a counselor.
Beam has been on the path of healing ever since, and at 44 years old, she's still on that path. Just one year ago she was diagnosed with PTSD.
"I think it kind of... supported what I actually went through," she said.
In 2012, Beam shared her story in a "coming out" column in the News and Tribune.
“For me it kind of helped expunge the demons," she said, adding that "if somehow your experience can help others survive or get them along or also help prevent situations, that’s important.”
Beyond sharing her story, she volunteers for different groups aimed at helping people in need, many of whom have experienced physical or sexual abuse. Last year she planted the seeds for creating a support group for adults who have experienced child sex abuse.
But Beam knows that child sex abuse has always been perpetrated, and it likely always will be. That makes giving survivors the resources and the space to speak up crucial. They also need to know, that whatever happened, they're not "broken."
“Dishes are broken. Toys are broken," Beam remembered writing once.
"People are never broken”