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CHILD ABUSE AWARENESS PART 5: ‘The biggest challenge is just getting people to believe child abuse happens’

The following is part 5 of a 7 part series about child abuse awareness and prevention, written by Elena Cawley.

“The biggest challenge is just getting people to believe child abuse happens,” Jill Howlett, forensic social worker, said. “Once you can acknowledge this can happen, awareness is in your favor.”

When children go to Our Kids, a medical clinic in Manchester, Howlett talks with them and gathers information. Our Kids provides medical exams when there are concerns of sexual abuse.

“When children and families come to the Our Kids Clinic, I first meet with the parent or caregiver that brings the child,” Howlett said. “I collect background information and talk to them about their reason for coming to the clinic. I also explain the medical examination in depth to the parent prior to the examination. If a child is 5 or older, I collect a medical history from that child and ask about sexual contact.”

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Howlett prepares the children for the medical examination, explaining the process.

“I also do exam preparation with all children, so they know exactly what to expect from the medical evaluation,” Howlett said.

Howlett joined Our Kids 10 years ago.

Our Kids is an outpatient medical clinic of Nashville General Hospital, with a satellite clinic in Manchester. The local clinic is located at the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center.   

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“We do medical exams on children when there are concerns of sexual abuse,” Howlett said. “Every family who is evaluated at Our Kids is met by a social worker and a nurse practitioner. Most children are referred to Our Kids by the Department of Children’s Services, law enforcement or local medical providers, including emergency departments and pediatricians. We are on call 24/7 to meet urgent medical needs and collect forensic evidence. Non-acute cases are scheduled during regular business hours. We provide forensic medical evaluations and crisis counseling for families and children when there are concerns of sexual abuse.”

Our Kids’ services are free.

Finding affordable counseling services to refer families to in rural areas poses a problem, said Howlett.

“Those services are not plentiful, even in large cities,” she said. “This counseling needs to address child sexual abuse and trauma.”

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As challenging as Howlett’s job is, “helping families through an extremely difficult situation and having the pleasure of talking to kids” makes the job rewarding. 

“Kids are great and process this type of abuse very differently than their caregivers,” Howlett said. “I also work with the most supportive colleagues I have ever had. (We) support each other and help each other work through difficult situations.”

The community can join the battle against child abuse by “believing that child abuse happens in all communities, by all kinds of people.”

“The biggest challenge is just getting people to believe child abuse happens,” she said.

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Once people accept child abuse exists in the community, they should help raise awareness.

“Children should be believed and be given the right tools to report if abuse happens to them,” she said.

Providing children with the tools includes communicating with them and making them feel comfortable talking about their body parts.

How to talk with children

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When they’re worried about sexual abuse, parents may say things that may inadvertently make it more difficult for a child to disclose abuse, according to Howlett.

For example, instead of saying, “don’t let anyone touch your private parts,” try “if anyone touches your private parts, it’s okay to tell me.”

Adults and older children are stronger and able to intimidate or manipulate a child. If parents tell their child not to “let” anyone touch their private parts, children may think they will get in trouble if touching occurs. Children may be hesitant to talk about the event. They may think, “mom told me not to let this happen, but I did, so I will get in trouble,” according to Howlett.

Additionally, children of all ages should know the names for their body parts. Using substitute names for body parts can be confusing. Avoid names that imply shame or something bad about that part of the body, said Howlett.

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