There are ten years since, to children and their families, we opened the Child Protection Center of Zagreb, specialised for work with traumatised children. The Center was the first in Croatia to offer the multidisciplinary approach in the protection of abused and traumatised children after the model implemented in developed countries.
I support the proposal to abolish the statute of limitations for the criminal offenses of sexual abuse of children and I am pleased that recently a thematic session on of this initiative was held in Parliament. Current treatment for sexual abusers of children is too lenient. Low penalties, probation sentences, or community service work are encouraging the abusers to repeat the offense and discourage other victims to come forward and report violence.
In our society there is a kind of collective self-deception that the sexual abuse of children rarely happens. In reality, in Croatia as well as in Europe, every fifth child is sexually abused. Sexual abuse does not respect borders, it happens in all classes, cultures and races regardless of the amount of income or educational level.
Here’s the data:
- The research we conducted in 2002 at 510 students at the faculties of Zagreb showed that 25.2% of female students and 16% of young men had experienced some form of sexual abuse until their 14th birthday. Overall, this is 19.7% – therefore, every fifth.
- The next bigger survey we conducted in 2008 with 4500 graduates. The data we receive shows that 18% of our graduates until the age of 14 experienced some form of sexual abuse – therefore, again every fifth.
- In 90% of cases, abusers are people from the closest family, relatives and close friends of the family. Retrospective studies show that in the case of sexual abuse of girls – abusers in 30 to 50% of cases are family members. Sexual abusers of male victims are family members in 10 to 20% of cases.
- In 90% of the cases the abusers are known to the child, only 10% are unknown.
- In some families, incest or sexual abuse of children is repeated in several generations.
- Abusers most often do not use force, but intimidation, threats, bribing. Children are diving to adults and listening to them because of their strength, skills and knowledge, and all these abusers use to keep children listening to them.
- Most sexual abusers are men.
- Sexual abuse of the child most often begins between the ages of 4 and 8. The average age of the victim is 9 years old. The most vulnerable age is between 7 and 13 years for girls and boys.
- It is believed that abuse of male children us less noticeable and less reported, than that of female children, partly because of expectations of society that victims are mainly female and abusers male. Indeed, sometimes the boys themselves will not define behavior as sexual abuse but as a sexual experience, especially if the abuser is female. Also, male children are raised not to talk about their problems, and the silence is increased if the abuser of a male child is a man, because a boy who report abuse should bypass the two taboos: that was the object of sexual contact with an adult and having this adult the person was of the same sex.
- A male victim is believed less than a female victim.
- In about 25% of cases child sexual abuse involves penetration or orally-genital contact.
- Child sexual abuser has an average of 50 victims before it is processed.
- The average time passed from the time when the abuse occurred until the moment when the victim entrusted to someone is 10-16 years.
Why are victims silent for so long?
In these statistics lies a partial answer why children are silent. In my career, I have been working with more than 1,500 sexually abused children and some adult victims. Both here and abroad, these children and adults told me that for years, sometimes for decades, they were silent for fear that if they speak out they were to be responsible for the breakup of the family, then for shame; for fear they will not be trusted; for fear of any eventual court proceeding that will occur after they speak of experiencing discomfort; fear that they will have to talk about “shameful” details that further traumatizes them; they do not know what will happen after some say; they are afraid that people will vilify …
“I do not want him to go to jail because he is my father / grandfather / uncle, it will get in the newspaper, the family will reject me, I will be labeled / and no one is going to want to hang out with me …”
“He told me that everybody would trust him more than me…”
“He told me that nothing would happen to him and my family would reject me…”
Unfortunately, many of these fears come true after a child entrusted to someone and the case reaches the child protection services. Very often non-abuse parent and family stand on the side of the abuser, so the child remains literally alone in the world. The child is separated from its family, and the abuser remains in his home.
Processes last for years. During this time the child passes multiple tests by different -sometimes trained, often untrained- examiners in different places, and throughout that time the child has to prove that they are not lying. Thus, the child goes from one to the other institutions in which they must prove it is telling the truth. No wonder that many children told me that they feel worse after they entrusted and asked for help, then for solely abuse they have suffered for years.
Why don’t we respect the rights of child victims?
Croatia has signed and ratified the conventions and documents on which we are obliged to respect all the rights of the child victim, for example: the child is examined only once (in exceptional cases twice), the examiners must be educated, to use science-based protocols forensic interview of the child, the procedures must be urgent… often we are seeing that nothing or most of the commitments to the child victim is not respected.
Even we adults do not feel comfortable in court, so we can imagine how children feel in this situation. A child up to 9-10 years of age does not understand the concept of a witness, it thinks that a witnesses are also on trial and that it can go to jail if it says something wrong.
When we know all this, I really do not know why with today’s technology the child has to go to court. Technology allows us to have a child in a child’s friendly space eg. in our Child and Youth Protection Center of Zagreb or kindergarten or in a child house, association… while everyone else involved in the process may be in court.
More then 15 years our Center offers to criminal judges in and around Zagreb that at least children under the age of 9-10 years, children with disabilities and severely traumatized children are not invited to court, so the judge, the state attorney, the offender and defence attorney, and all involved in the process come from the court into our Center. Here they can all examine the child through our expert who will be alone with the child in a special, child friendly room, and adjust the questions of a judge with whom the expert is connected with an audio-video link. Thus, the judge and others involved in the process see and hear situation from the room on the screens. The expert hears questions from the judge through headphones and adapts them to the child’s age and emotional state. The interview is recorded and the parties involved receive a recording of the interview, so the child does not need to go to court.
All our experts have special training by the best American experts in forensic interviewing of children – victims of crime, and we offer it to the courts free of charge. Unfortunately, the only criminal judge who uses this ability is judge Lana Petö Kujundzic. I really hope that other criminal judges will accept our offer too, so this could be an example of good practice and judicial custom to the children to which we are committed. Now, this depends on the good will of judges and would appear to be ineffective. Therefore, it should be a legal requirement that children under the age of 9-10 years old, children with disabilities and severely traumatized children should not go on court. The state should provide professionals and child-friendly premises.
The consequences of sexual abuse for a child – victim
Sexual abuse is not a problem that will go away with growing up. The consequences can be spread through the whole life. These children often feel like defective goods, marked, helpless, have a higher risk of self-destructive behavior in adolescence – for self-harm, for suicidal behavior. Cutting of their body is actually an attempt to psychological pain, which to them is unbearable, so they replace it with the physical pain because it is bearable. Or they are “anesthetized” in adolescence with drugs and alcohol.
Instead of realizing that these are the consequences of childhood trauma, these adolescents are often called as problematic.
Sexually abused children, as they are prematurely sexually stimulated and aroused, may show inappropriate sexualized behavior, for example, show an unusual interest in sexual organs, draw sketches with accented sexual details, drawings which show genitalia through clothes, use the “dirty” words, etc.
And again, rather than to recognize this as a symptom, environment punishes them for this behavior.
Often the consequences of sexual abuse in childhood last through the whole life. Therefore, ther shouldn’t be the statute of limitation, probation sentences or community service work when it comes to this criminal offense. With this, judiciary gives the children a message that what they have experienced is not so horrible and they have no right to feel bad. Through therapy we send a message to them that isn’t their fault nor responsibility for what has happened, but the recovery of the child certainly is more difficult when the system sends message that abusers are not very guilty or responsible for it.
The consequences for the victim often last a lifetime, and the act of the abuser goes into the statute of limitations. And, if abusers have been punished, they had the option of erasuring the sentence so after the prison time they have no criminal record. They are going on with their lives as if nothing has happened. Literally nothing, because there’s not even an obligation for them to pass psychological treatment by which they can put the urges under control (if court has not ordered).
This way, they return “cleaned” back into society where they can work with children and look for new victims, because there is no obligation of employers, whether private or public institutions, to request for such jobs from candidates to submit a certificate that they are not in the register of sexual abusers of children. Our so called “Register of pedophiles” is one useless registry that exists only pro forma: after criminal sanctions sexual abusers of children no longer need to report with information about where they live, where they work, have they changed the physical appearance (beard, moustache, hair color …), where they travel to vacation … This registry must be processed and converted into a purposeful registry for the protection of children.