Awareness campaign: Child sexual abuse happens more often than you think

Rachel Thielmann is working to raise awareness about and prevent local child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it’s more prevalent than you’d think, she says. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen Rachel Thielmann is working to raise awareness about and prevent local child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, it’s more prevalent than you’d think, she says. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

April is one of the first warm and welcoming months of the new year, but it’s also given two not-so-ideal titles: National Child Abuse Prevention month and Sexual Assault Awareness month.

“Child sexual abuse is much more prevalent than people think,” says Rachel Thielmann, a prevention education specialist at Foothills Child Advocacy Center. Though her group served 326 local children last year—with 65 percent of them reportedly victims of sexual abuse—she says the number of abused kids is likely much higher because a lot of children never disclose it.

Many signs forewarn of child sexual abuse, but the specialist says it can be difficult to pinpoint them. She offers a few things to look for.

“For all kids, curiosity about sex and their bodies is really natural, but when you see a child who knows really specific things or specific language about sex that’s outside of what you would expect for their age, that could be a sign,” she says.

Adults should also notice when children are averse to being with a grown-up they used to spend a lot of time with, or any kind of unexplained physical mark or rash, or discomfort when using the bathroom.

When abuse is suspected, she says adults should immediately report it to Child Protective Services.

One in four children will be sexually abused in their lifetime, and more than 90 percent of them are abused by someone they know well, according to Thielmann, who adds that dodging perpetrators isn’t as simple as refusing candy from strangers, or staying away from the bad guy.

“They’re in your community,” she says, nodding to the case of a former teacher who pleaded guilty in 2014 to online coercion and enticement with a minor, and who is now serving 10 years in federal prison.

“He was that person that everybody loved,” she says. “Kids loved him. Other teachers loved him.”

She also mentions a more recent case that went through her office, in which a 14-year-old girl was being sexually abused by her father.

“She felt really, really terrible because she felt like she had gone along with it,” says Thielmann. “Kids are typically groomed in that process.”

While adults may think young children should be able to recognize a “bad touch,” she says, “when someone they love says, ‘I love you,’ and ‘you’re really special to me, so we’re going to have a secret,’ kids don’t really understand that’s not okay.”

The employees at Foothills administer a free national training called Stewards of Children. Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman—who recently made headlines for being a victim of former national gymnastics team doctor and convicted child molester Larry Nassar—has advocated for every adult involved in youth sports to undergo this training.

The next Stewards of Children sessions are on Saturday, April 21, at the Foothills office on East High Street. It’ll be offered in English at 10am and in Spanish at 2pm. Visit to register.

Local statistics

Rachel Thielmann, a prevention education specialist at the Foothills Child Advocacy Center, says a large majority of child abuse goes unreported. Many victims don’t speak out until they’re older, so the numbers are likely much higher. In fiscal year 2017, Foothills representatives served 236 new cases in Charlottesville and Albemarle, and 90 in surrounding counties.

The 326 children were:

  • 62% female
  • 38% male
  • 28% disabled
  • 32% 0-6 years old
  • 37% 7-12 years old
  • 31% 13-18 years old

All kids were alleged victims of at least one type of abuse, but some of them reported more than one type.

  • 65% sexual abuse
  • 20% child pornography/internet crimes/trafficking
  • 26% physical abuse
  • 17% neglect
  • 17% witness to violence
  • 28% other types of abuse

State statistics

In fiscal year 2017, 55,258 children in Virginia were reported as possible victims of abuse or neglect, according to Child Protective Services.

  • 6,947 kids participated in founded investigations, which means a review of the facts gathered during the investigation met the state’s preponderance of evidence standard
  • 9,796 children were involved in unfounded investigations
  • 38,515 children were involved in reports that yielded family assessments
  • 120 investigations of child deaths due to suspected abuse or neglect
  • 38 children died as a result of abuse or neglect

Updated: April 19 at 4:30pm.

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