‘Start by believing’: advocates shine a spotlight on sexual violence against children

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Danielle Bostick first had an inkling that something might not be right about her childhood when she saw a news article about another woman who had been sexually abused by a different swim coach in the D.C. area. 

Bostick, who grew up in Montgomery County, Md., said something about it struck too close to home. Once more, she pushed away those feelings until a few years later.

“I hadn’t faced my childhood abuse until I was in my 30’s,” Bostick said.

But when she did come forward with her story, she found the process a bit unsettling.

“When I reported it to police, they said, ‘don’t worry, we’re not going to tell anyone your name. You’ll be victim A.’ And I was simultaneously relieved and disgusted,” Bostick said. “‘Wait, I lose my name in this process?’ I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had nothing to be ashamed of.”

Like so many survivors of childhood sexual violence, Bostick didn’t come to terms with her abuse until she was an adult. However, Bostick got justice – police believed her allegations, and that was enough to get a case moving.

Bostick actually got her abuser, Christopher Huott, to admit on a recorded phone call that he had committed numerous crimes against her. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014.

But Bostick’s case came from before the era of #MeToo, and before the exposure of USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar’s years of abuse. In many senses, she was alone as she chose to be identified by media outlets as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. 

Emileigh Whitehouse, a sexual assault child therapist at the Laurel Center in Winchester, said childhood sexual assault often times goes unreported. When it is, the victims are rarely named because of the stigma associated with it.

One reason for the low reporting rate is because children who are abused are often dependent on their abuser, Bostick said. 

Despite warnings of “stranger danger,” the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network states that 90 percent of children who are sexually abused know their abuser, whether it’s a relative or a family friend, and 80 percent of perpetrators are the child’s parent.

“What we see are a lot more incest cases when it comes to childhood sexual assault, versus stranger-type of incidents,” Whitehouse said.

She estimates nearly one in eight children are sexually abused, but adds that the number may be higher because of the high rate of under-reporting. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that a child is sexually abused every 11 minutes.

Whitehouse said often times, the trauma of childhood abuse isn’t recognized by survivors until they explore other issues in their lives as adults.

“Oftentimes, what we see is that a lot of these individuals have co-occurring disorders. A lot of them fall into substance use, a lot of them are in domestic violence relationships. And their primary concern may not be coming in for sexual assault. It may be for another issue,” Whitehouse explained.

“But then we uncover, ‘oh, by the way, I was sexually assaulted by my uncle when I was like seven.’ And it’s like, ‘oh, okay, maybe this has something to do with all the problems that you’ve experienced.'” 

Breaking that silence is the first step to recovery, but Bostick recognizes it’s not a simple task.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence, since we don’t talk about it, a lot of people just don’t know what to do,” she said. “Their blueprint is just silence.”

Both Bostick and Whitehouse say the better blueprint is to believe someone if they disclose sexual violence, regardless of their age. 

“What’s the worst thing that happens if we don’t believe survivors?” asked Bostick. “A perpetrator perpetrates again.”

If you’re looking for someone to talk to in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, you can call the Laurel Center’s 24-hour hotline at 540-667-6466.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network also has a 24-hour hotline at 800-656-4673.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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