GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Healing Garden outside the Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County is a peaceful place where children, alongside a therapy dog named Bacon, can begin taking steps toward their future and away from the harm of sexual abuse.
“This is a place of help and healing and there is a path forward and there can be treatment to be a happy, healthy person,” Samantha Akerman, clinical supervisor at the center, said.
The Children’s Advocacy Center deals with child sexual abuse by not only tending to children who have been abused, but also by helping to prevent it from happening in the first place. Counselors say a lot of the power is in the hands of caretakers. They urge parents to talk to kids when they’re young so they’ll know when something isn’t right.
A shocking story of child sexual abuse emerged last week when the FBI raided two neighboring homes in Vicksburg. Virgil Chandler Knowles III and Samantha Jean Batts have each been charged with one count of sexual exploitation of a child. Knowles has also been charged with one count of distribution of child pornography.
Akerman said everyone can help in breaking the cycle of child sexual abuse because sometimes the signs are there.
“If you’re noticing a child is becoming much more withdrawn or they’re leaving the home a lot and there’s a significant shift in behavior, those are things that can be indicators that something’s changed, something’s happened,” she said.
If a child suddenly has electronics, jewelry, or spending money, or if they’re hanging out with someone new, maybe someone older, it might be time to speak up.
“If you see something, it’s not your job to investigate it. It’s your job to report it,” Akerman said.
She recommended putting the information into the hands of law enforcement and Children’s Protective Services, who are trained to deal with it.
Akerman says parents can act early in their own child’s life by talking about it. The CAC offers body safety classes for kids as young as 3 and 4.
“We give kids a lot of information about safe and not safe touches, good and bad secrets. Giving them the correct language for body parts. Because if something is going on and a child has the language to articulate that, they can say it,” Akerman said.
We hear a lot about stranger danger and we teach our kids to be wary of people they don’t know. Akerman said that typically, abusers are a lot closer to home.
“What we see is that offenders and abusers are in the family, they’re friends of the family, they’re people at the church,” she said. “Typically someone who’s going to hurt your child is someone you already know.”
A child who has been abused and enters the Children’s Advocacy Center will undergo a lot of trauma treatment, therapy and working toward feeling safe and trusting again. The two children in Vicksburg will have some hard work and healing ahead.
“Our message here is this is a place of hope and healing,” Akerman said, “and I hope this child can be connected with a place like this center where they can work through the events that have happened, where they can feel like they’re safe and they’re comfortable being themselves.”