This piece appeared in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill Local on December 6, 2019
by Helen W. Mallon
Until around 30 years ago, few, if any, organizations existed to help sexually abused children. Today, Philadelphia’s children find a safe, caring response at Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, which is a national model for similar organizations.
In one child-friendly building in North Philly, PCA offers coordinated services to children and their families at no cost. Trained forensic interviewers and medical professionals, therapists, DHS workers, the Special Victims Unit of the Philadelphia Police, and court advocates work together easily. Once, they were isolated in silos around the city. Today, they are all under one roof, along with credentialed medical professionals from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who are specially trained to work with abused children.
Under stress, children often give a different story to different adults. PCA’s forensic interviews are digitally recorded so that children don’t have to relive their trauma with each hurdle they meet. Frightened children are no longer dragged from emergency rooms to police precincts to meetings with social workers, lawyers and others.
Darkness2Light, founded in 2000, is a national and international nonprofit dedicated to child sexual abuse prevention. Its trainings are flexible enough for a one-time event or a deeper dive. Offerings vary from online tips for parents who need help speaking to their own children about safety, to research papers and fact sheets. D2L’s online and in-person trainings cover the gamut: healthy touch, mandated reporting, bystander training and child trafficking. All these are tailored to individuals, educators and community groups. In early 2020, D2L will offer two-hour trainings at several locations in the Philly suburbs at a very reasonable cost.
In mid-November, after a protracted battle in Harrisburg, the legislature passed two bills in support of adults who were abused as children. Bill 962 eliminates the criminal statute of limitations and extends the civil statute until the victim reaches the age of 55. Until now, that age limit was 30. Governor Wolf signed this bill into law just before Thanksgiving.
Bill 963 is a constitutional amendment allowing a two-year window of opportunity for victims who have aged out of the current statute to sue abusers for damages. While the full legislature passed the bill last week, this amendment to the state constitution will require another approval by the full legislature, followed by a ballot referendum put to Pennsylvania voters. It will be 2021 before the legislature votes on it again.
Why the need to extend the statute of limitations? Why offer victims of this particular crime special treatment? While PCA does cutting-edge work, the roughly 3,000 children – including kids from Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Roxborough – they help yearly are only the tip of the iceberg. Many kids cannot disclose their abuse to anyone. If they do, the adults they tell have to be supportive. These bills offer the potential for justice for adults who were silenced as kids.
Brain science yet provides another answer. In his seminal book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk writes, “There have … been hundreds of scientific publications spanning … documenting how the memory of trauma can be repressed, only to surface years or decades later … Total memory loss is most common in childhood sexual abuse, with incidence ranging from 19% to 38%.”
When their memories only surface later in life, adult survivors must be able to pursue justice as part of their healing process. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania State Legislature agrees.
The amendment was championed by Berks County Representative Mark Rozzi, himself a survivor of child sexual abuse. Like him, I am a survivor. Like him, I have endured sleepless, nausea-filled nights. I could tell no one about my abuse, not even myself. I suppressed the memory for 20 years. I have tasted in my own mouth the difference between bitterness and forgiveness, and I have chosen the sweeter taste.
The search for justice, even retroactive justice, is not vindictive. Wrongs cry out to be righted, whether they were perpetrated against oneself or another.
In two years, I’m hopeful that Pennsylvania voters will have the chance to say yes to justice. In the meantime, statistics demonstrate all of us know an adult who was sexually abused as a child. Sadly, all of us know at least one child who was – or will be – in the one out of 10 kids sexually abused before the age of 18. Race, wealth and class are no protection here. For now, Philadelphia Children’s Alliance and Darkness2Light offer not only help, but strategies to end the scourge.