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Published on April 25, 2016

Treating the trauma of childhood sexual abuseTreating the trauma of childhood sexual abuse

As much as no one wants to think about it, that fact is that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted in childhood, according to Holly Brockman-Johnson, marketing and development coordinator for Children’s Cove in Hyannis.

And now in the age of prolific internet use, she said a new disturbing statistic has cropped up: one in six children will be solicited for sex online.

Children’s Cove sees about 200 children per year on the Cape and Islands and their goal is heartfelt and simple: to minimize the pain and damage caused to children who have been affected by sexual abuse.

“We’re a children’s advocacy center for Barnstable County and both islands,” said Sandra Hebenstreit, NP, a pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). “We deal with mainly sexual abuse, but we also do interviews for physical abuse and for witnesses of domestic violence.”

As a SANE nurse, Hebenstreit has received special training through the Department of Public Health to perform exams and collect evidence using a pediatric sexual assault evidence collection kit. Unlike adult sexual assault, in which evidence can be collected for up to 120 hours, with children the window is 72 hours, she explained.

Cape Cod Healthcare, the parent company of Cape Cod Hospital and Falmouth Hospital, supports Children’s Cove with a $56,000 grant annually. In addition, Cape Cod Hospital pediatric hospitalist Teresa Reid, MD, serves on the Children’s Cove advisory board.

“It’s an important and long-standing commitment,” said Lisa Guyon, director of Community benefits for Cape Cod Healthcare.

Because time is of the essence, Cape Cod Hospital, Falmouth Hospital and Nantucket Cottage Hospital all have trained SANE nurses on call at all times in their emergency departments. They collect evidence, photograph injuries and order testing for sexually transmitted diseases. That evidence is then transported to the state crime lab by appropriate law enforcement officials.

“It’s all done with a do no harm policy, which means if the child does not want to cooperate with the exam, or do the exam or wants to stop mid-exam, we stop,” Hebenstreit said. “We do not cause further trauma to the child by forcing them to go through an exam. Their well-being is more important and they are in control of this exam.”

Many times, she performs the exam while the child is sitting on a non-offending parent’s lap, she said. The Children’s Cove exam room is very child-friendly with blankets, stuffed animals and other things to play with. Whether the exam and collection of materials happens there or at one of the hospitals, Children’s Cove is where the forensic interview takes place.

A two-way mirror allows the entire multi-disciplinary team, which includes law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, a case worker from the Department of Children and Families and staff members from Children’s Cove, to witness the forensic interview.

“It reduces the re-traumatization of that child because they can tell their story once and then that’s it,” Brockman-Johnson said, adding that many kids feel a burden lift at finally being able to share their story.

“Some of the children you can just see the relief,” she said. “They sit up a little taller. They come in sad and forlorn and then walk out much happier because they know they are telling us their stories and we believe them and we’re here to make them safe.”

Many times the non-offending parent is actually in greater emotional crisis than the children because they feel guilty or somehow responsible for not protecting their child, she said. Children’s Cove has a mental health coordinator who also watches the forensic interview so she can start brainstorming about what services the child and non-offending family members need.

“We’ve trained clinicians from the bridges to Provincetown and on both islands in trauma informed care,” Brockman-Johnson said. “So no matter where you live or what kind of insurance you have, we can set you up with a clinician who knows how to take care of a child who has been traumatized and non-offending family members as well.”

Children’s Cove’s main goal is to help “the child in reaching their truth,” Hebenstreit said. “We wrap services around that child and the non-offending family members for them to get on a path of hope and healing.”