Preventing child sexual abuse requires acknowledging the problem, advocates say

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10-month-old Emmaleigh died of her injuries after police say she was violently sexually assaulted. Benjamin Taylor, 32, of Cottageville, is charged with murder. Advocates say child abuse happens every day, usually by someone known and trusted by the family.

Unfortunately, people who abuse children, including infants, are not “monsters.”

Amanda Adkins, the mother of the 10-month-old baby who Benjamin Taylor allegedly raped in Jackson County last week, probably wouldn’t have let Taylor be around her daughter, Emmaleigh, if Taylor had fur or horns, indicating a more obvious threat. If Taylor was a “monster” — as many have called him in the days since Emmaleigh was assaulted, and then died of her injuries — then he would have never been allowed inside the home and Emmaleigh might be alive today.

But Taylor is a human being. So are the people who have committed lethal infant rapes in other areas throughout the world. So are all the numerous others who live in West Virginia who sexually and physically abuse children.

While the incidents may not elicit the same level of shock and revulsion, children in West Virginia, and everywhere, are sexually and physically abused every day, usually by someone known and trusted by the family.

It will take acknowledging and accepting that uncomfortable fact to learn to prevent similar incidents.

Lt. D.B. Swiger, who heads the State Police Crimes Against Children unit, has investigated few cases involving strangers.

“They’re among us in society,” he said. “We all want to envision this horrid looking person that hides in the shadows and commits these crimes. The reality is it’s not the case.”

Jim McKay, state coordinator of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, noted that states spend a lot of money on sexual predator registries.

“The states that have really strict registries don’t necessarily have safer kids,” he said. “It creates a false sense of security because we think we can look at a map and see where the ‘monsters’ are, when the ‘monsters’ are right in our own homes.”

One in Ten

While determining a definitive number is difficult because child abuse is underreported, Darkness to Light, a well-respected child-abuse prevention organization that also provides training on preventing abuse, reviewed six studies and found that about one in ten children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

We also don’t know exactly how many children are abused on the state level. But child advocacy centers, where children are interviewed about allegations of abuse, served 3,518 new clients in the 2016 fiscal year, according to an annual report. About 35 percent were under the age of 6. As in Emmaleigh’s case, in 99 percent of cases, the alleged perpetrator was someone the child knew.

And child maltreatment fatalities, while not as common, are also a regular occurrence in West Virginia. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, there were 17 in the 2014 federal fiscal year. In Hampshire County in October 2013, an 18-month-old child died due to injuries caused by the mother’s boyfriend, according to summaries of the incidents provided by DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler.

In Taylor County in October 2013, a father was charged after police said he either threw or shook his 2-month-old child, killing the infant. In Wood County in August 2014, a 2-week-old baby was injured and killed by a live-in boyfriend of the mother.

Traci Busch, executive director of the West Virginia Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, understands the outrage and disgust over Emmaleigh’s case.

But she also wishes there was more outrage for the hundreds of children she’s served in her 30 years of experience, and worries that in our selective outrage, we are discounting those children’s experiences.

“It’s such a secret thing,” she said. “Nobody in society really wants to talk about it or think about it. When this comes out in the media, people don’t know how to handle their feelings about what happened. Let’s use our outrage as a community to figure out what we can do to prevent this — what we can do to protect our innocent children.”

‘I think there’s more we can do than call for justice’

Other child-abuse prevention advocates in the state also said they understand the intense emotion this case has evoked. They’re dealing with it themselves.

But they too cautioned against knee-jerk reactions.

As of mid-afternoon Friday, 60,000 people had called for side-stepping the criminal justice process and publicly hanging Taylor. The person who created it, “J.R.” wrote “Maybe if these people were actually afraid of what would happen to them if/when they were caught, they’d be less likely to do such vile things?” By late afternoon Friday, the petition, on the White House website, was closed because it was “in violation of our Terms of Participation.”

Senator Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R- Jackson, has also said the Legislature may consider bringing back the death penalty. He did not return a call Friday.

McKay, the head of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, noted that research suggests that perpetrators don’t think about what will happen next. According to the National Institute of Justice, there is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals, and increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.

“The evidence is pretty clear that guy is not thinking about getting caught,” McKay said.

Calling for vengeance and putting perpetrators on death row may make people feel safer.

But advocates in West Virginia — who work in the field every day — would prefer to see West Virginians who are outraged by the case to put their energy into more preventative strategies.

“I think if you put all your focus on penalties, you lose focus on what’s actually happening,” said Emily Chittenden-Laird, director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network.

Chittenden-Laird said that while instituting the death penalty may seem like justice, it would actually result in making prosecutors less likely to bring cases forward, and juries less likely to convict.

“I think everybody’s immediate reaction is this visceral place where they want accountability and justice,” she said, “and there is no degree to which inflicting anything on this perpetrator would equate justice in this situation, and that’s just the reality we have to sit with. But I think there’s more we can do than call for justice.”

It’s still early in the investigation, and police are releasing only limited information, so it’s unclear what warning signs might have preceded the assault in this case.

Jackson County Sheriff Tony Boggs said he didn’t know of any specific ways Emmaleigh’s case could have been prevented.

“Take care of them and hug them extra,” he said. “

Taylor did post jokes that demeaned women on Facebook, which might have set off some sort of red flag about his values. It could hardly predict infant rape, although McKay noted “our collective inaction in response to those types of jokes and comments” could be part of the problem.

But there are ways that we can prevent child abuse, according to advocates. The work will just take more time than the seconds it takes to sign a petition.

‘We all have a role in preventing in child sexual abuse’

Police and advocates provided a variety of strategies for preventing abuse. Swiger encouraged parents to be vigilant, and take children at their word. Advocates also provided additional strategies, including: ensuring children feel safe and unafraid to talk about sensitive subjects, reporting suspicions, becoming educated on the signs, providing support to new or stressed-out parents, and volunteering for community programs that support children.

The first step, they said, is accepting the possibility that it could happen to your children, and someone you know could be the perpetrator. Boyfriends of single mothers are also frequent perpetrators.

In an email, Les Nichols, who develops child protection programs within youth-serving organizations, and spent 22 years as a youth safety expert for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, pointed to a book, “Identifying Child Molesters,” by Dr. Carla Van Dam.

He said the author notes that “child sexual abuse is so horrible to the public, that we would have eliminated it from our society years ago if it were not for the four obstacles we, ourselves, present,” including:

n People must accept that people they often trust and respect are capable of being a child molester,

n People must be willing to learn about the patterns of child molesters, which are very predictable,

n People must be willing to learn to intervene in some way to prevent things from going any further, and

n Someone must connect the dots so that a molester doesn’t keep going from victim to victim.

“All of us are angry and horrified at what happened to Baby Adkins,” McKay said. “As a father, I can only imagine how much pain their family is suffering right now. But this case highlights the importance of our efforts to keep children safe.”

He advised everyone, not just parents, to look into the Darkness to Light child abuse prevention training, and said that local trainings are also being planned.

“One thing we have learned in recent years is that communities are prepared to come together in response to crisis,” he said. “We need to come together in response to this crisis, just as we did during the flood or at other times. We all have a role in preventing in child sexual abuse and as a state we can, and must, prevent this kind of abuse from occurring.

For those looking for healing and togetherness, a candlelight vigil will be held for Emmaleigh at 7 p.m. on the Jackson County Courthouse grounds, at 100 North Court St. in Ripley, on Monday.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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