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CHILD ABUSE AWARENESS MONTH: ‘You think you’ve heard the worst of the worst, and then something worse happens’

By Elena Cawley

The confidential nature of child abuse cases presents a problem: people forget child abuse exists. False. Child abuse plagues Coffee County. But the community can help by raising awareness

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Joyce Prusak, executive director of the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center, works to provide abuse-free future for children. According Prusak, the advocacy center received 348 referrals for child abuse last year, with the numbers increasing compared with 2019.

As taxing as the job is, she finds satisfaction in helping children find healing.

“Dealing with witnessing the trauma builds up and it’s hard,” Prusak said. “Last year we saw some of the worst cases. When you think you’ve heard the worst of the worst, and then something worse happens, it’s hard.”

The advocacy center becomes involved with the cases through referrals from the Department of Children’s Services.

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“The process depends on the severity of the case,” Prusak said. “If it’s a sexual abuse case, we get an interview scheduled here at the advocacy center. We do it at the center so the child will tell the story one time. DCS and law enforcement can watch the interview and have their questions answered. The most important thing is that we are talking to the children in a way that’s comfortable to them and in a way that doesn’t lead them. They should tell their story in their own words.”

The advocacy center provides a neutral environment. Children feel more relaxed at the center.
Having the advocacy center as a place for the interview is much more comfortable for the child than school offices or police departments. The center provides a homey atmosphere, where Forensic Interviewer Rachel Fuller can spend time with the child and build a rapport, said Prusak.

“It’s important to have someone who is trained in talking about experiencing trauma, especially sexual trauma,” Prusak said.

The advocacy center also offers a safe space for medical professionals to conduct examinations.
If it’s a sexual abuse case, the children are examined at the center by experts, said Prusak said.
“We have specialists that come here for the medical exam,” she said.

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Often, the victims are very young.

“Last year, 0 to 6 was the most common age,” she said.

Most often the advocacy center sees children younger than 6. And that’s one of the challenges because it’s hard for young children to explain what happened and describe the mistreatment. Often, they don’t realize they’ve been abused.

Sometimes, the parents of the victims have been trapped in a vicious cycle themselves.

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“We see a lot of moms that were abused themselves as children,” Prusak said. “They are not necessarily abusing their children but are making choices that are putting their children at risk. They may let children stay with people they don’t know very well, for example. And those situations sometimes open up more opportunities for abuse.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in child abuse cases, with parents having to look for childcare.

“We have seen more cases,” Prusak said, adding the reason for the increased number may be due to more people reporting child abuse.

Earning the trust of the child is essential. Overcoming the mistrust of the child is one of the biggest challenges.

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“About 90% of the children are abused by someone they love and trust, and that’s really hard,” she said.

Children often think they will betray the person they love if they reveal the truth. Additionally, they face fear of punishment, as well as stigma and embarrassment.

Raising awareness

While child abuse is rampant in Coffee County, people don’t know about it because of the confidential nature of the cases. Even though child abuse cases represent a significant part of the cases law enforcement deals with, those cases are not reported to the public. Furthermore, people prefer to avoid the topic because of stigma. However, raising awareness is exactly what’s needed to curb child abuse.

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“The biggest challenge is lack of awareness,” Prusak said. “Raising awareness would help. It’s hard because these cases are confidential, and we can’t even talk with family members about them.”

The community can also help the advocacy center by providing financial support.
“We need funding to help kids,” she said.

As a nonprofit organization, the advocacy center relies solely on donations, as well as private and state grants. Most of the funds come from private donations. The pandemic has limited the opportunities for fundraising.

“We do a lot of fundraising, and with COVID it was scary,” Prusak said.

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Numbers have increased
• Child abuse in Coffee County has seen an increase. Overall, the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center had 348 referrals in 2020, compared to 336 in 2019. The advocacy center conducted 184 forensic interviews in 2020, compared to 170 in 2019. The center performed 46 medical exams in 2020, compared to 41 in 2019.

• In 2020, 84% of the cases were allegations of child sexual abuse – a higher percentage than usual (usually around 70%)

• 6% of the cases were severe physical abuse; 4% severe lack of supervision; 3% severe psychological harm; the remaining cases made up of children that were severely drug exposed or possible child abuse deaths. The advocacy center is involved with the severe cases. “Severe” is defined by the State of Tennessee, and child sexual abuse allegations are automatically severe.

• In 2020, of the total referrals received for services, 67% of the children were female and 33% male. 40% of the children were 6 years of age or younger, 36% between the ages of 7 and 12, and 24% were between 13 and 18.

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(Information provided by Joyce Prusak, executive director of the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center)

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