When we speak about sexual assault, it is natural for our thoughts to turn to extremely violent acts carried out by predatory strangers. That is a completely understandable perception as our popular culture has manifested the idea that sexual assault is something that happens in dark alleys and stairwells.
While that is certainly the case in too many tragic situations, the truth is that a lot of sexual abuse and violence does not happen that way.
In fact, only about 19 percent of adult victims of sexual assault identify their abusers as strangers. More often than not, the person who violates them is someone they know: An acquaintance, ex-boyfriend or spouse, a date, a relative, or some otherwise trusted figure in their lives.
In the case of children impacted by sexual abuse and violence, the statistics are even more devastating. Some 93 percent of children who experience this kind of trauma are victimized by someone they know. It is profoundly discouraging that the most vulnerable among us are the most likely to be violated by someone they should be able to count on for security and protection.
This is the second April that we are observing Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month in the midst of a global pandemic. As we do so, my thoughts often turn to the children who have been victimized while sheltering in place with their abusers throughout this public health crisis.
Last year, our team worked with 342 child victims who had been impacted by domestic or sexual abuse. The average of those young clients was 11. Of those children, 103 of them came to us to report sexual violence. Another 180 of those children worked with our nationally accredited Child Advocacy Center, which provides services to children’s who are the victims of extreme abuse of a domestic or sexual nature.
In addition to children, we supported because of sexual abuse, we had another 24 children live in our domestic violence safe house. Because the demand for safe house shelter was so great during the pandemic, we sheltered another 12 children in hotels.
It is my belief that as we emerge from this pandemic, we will see these already startling numbers surge as children have access to teachers, counselors, and other trusted figures with whom they can share what has been happening in their lives.
This is a discouraging prediction, but not a hopeless one.
Throughout this public health crisis, our team has been working round-the-clock to connect our young clients with the services they need. Our child clinician has been providing therapy to them in-person and virtually.
We recently announced an ambitious fundraising campaign to expand our shelter program with a new, 9,000-foot safe house, Empower House, which we hope to open in Fall 2021. This will help us provide safe, supportive shelter to more kids, their parents and caregivers fleeing abusive situations.
We are also getting ready for what we hope will be our fifth summer of the Elizabeth M. Pfriem Camp HOPE America-Bridgeport, our award-winning summer camp and year-long mentoring program for children impacted by trauma. Many of the children we served during the pandemic will be invited to attend.
This month, CFJ will host its 9th annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event as a virtual fundraiser to benefit Camp HOPE. The walk will be once chaired by Gary MacNamara, Executive Director of Public Safety & Government Affairs at Sacred Heart University and former Fairfield Police Chief. While the need for social distancing means we cannot walk together to raise money to support our programs, we are asking those who care about the clients we serve to join us in this effort by taking their own virtual walks.
Joining us in this effort could make an enormous difference in the life of a child who has endured a world of hurt.
—Debra A. Greenwood is the President & CEO of The Center for Family Justice which serves victims of domestic and sexual violence and child abuse in the communities of Bridgeport. Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull.