The recent murder and kidnapping case in Coeur d’Alene’s back yard depressed children’s advocate Tinka Schaffer, but she also saw an opportunity in the accompanying publicity to help teach children about sexual abuse.
The man charged with the crimes, Joseph E. Duncan III, is a registered sex offender with a history of molesting children.
“When tragedies such as this happen, it’s a wonderful time to open up dialogue. ‘Mommy and Daddy are here to protect you. We never want anyone to hurt you.’ Role model, pretend,” said Schaffer, development director at Coeur d’Alene’s Children’s Village. The nonprofit village is a long-term haven for children who can’t live at home for various reasons.
Teaching children about their bodies and good and bad touches is a healthy response for the many parents feeling powerless over the random nature of the attack on the Groene family and Mark McKenzie, counselors say. Megan Schulz, a Post Falls parent, said she would teach her daughter, Kaitlin, about good and bad touches if the 17-month-old were older. Instead, Schulz said, she finds herself so spooked by the recent crime that she won’t let Kaitlin out of her sight.
“They announced a missing child at Wal-Mart the other day and I picked her up immediately and wouldn’t let her go,” she said. “She’s pretty, and if they want a kid bad enough, they’ll get them.”
Respect and what constitutes appropriate attention to her body are values Schulz said she’ll eventually teach Kaitlin, but carefully.
“There’s a fine line between teaching a child to grow up on her own and making her careless or neurotic,” Shulz said.
Jill Benson, a Spokane parent, said the recent news has triggered her to watch everyone who interacts with her 2½-year-old son, Brady. She taught him about strangers and is encouraged by how much a 7-year-old she cares for knows about good touch and bad touch, she said. Body respect is talked about much more now than when she was a child, she said.
“Kids seem to know things I didn’t know at that age,” Benson said.
With any luck, that knowledge comes from parents doing their best to protect their children with education, said Nancy Taylor, a Hayden parent and city councilwoman.
Taylor became a crusader for sex abuse education after one of her children was molested seven years ago. At her insistence, Hayden added a link to its city Web site to the state sex offender registry through the Idaho State Police. Taylor said she hopes the Groene crime will motivate people to unite against child sex abuse.
“It’s really hard to protect your kids. Teach them to yell, scream. Being protective of where they go is not enough. You have to know the people they’re with,” Taylor said. “(The Groene case) is raising awareness and that’s good. These are our kids being damaged for life and it’s perpetuating. How many molesters were molested as children?”
The Kootenai County Prosecutor’s Office filed 28 criminal charges related to child sexual abuse between July 1, 2004, and June 30 this year. Prosecutor Bill Douglas said those cases are far from the number of sexual abuse complaints filed, but his office pursues only those cases with potential for conviction.
“The dynamics are perhaps similar to domestic violence – the silent crime. These are crimes where the offender manipulates the victim into not reporting,” Douglas said. “There are threats, delayed reporting.”
Cases filed have doubled in Kootenai County in 10 years. Douglas takes heart from that fact.
“We are trending up and I think it’s because victims of crime are making more reports because of greater confidence in the criminal justice system that this crime will be addressed and justice will be sought,” he said.
The difficulties inherent in sexual abuse complaints make family reactions exceedingly important, counselors say. Sandra Turtle, a Coeur d’Alene counselor who has worked with victimized children for 13 years, said victims are loaded with guilt that they caused the abuse.
“You have to help them see that they didn’t,” Turtle said. “They have to at least get angry that something was taken from them, and then there’s recovery.”
Without help, victims may withdraw into anxiety and depression. They may look for artificial ways to feel better – alcohol, gambling, shopping. They may slip into eating disorders, self-destruction and suicide attempts, Turtle said.
“If a child has someone to tell when they’re young and they know they’ll be believed, it can almost be resolved then,” Turtle said.
Turtle advises parents to pay attention if a child becomes withdrawn or uneasy around certain relatives, friends or neighbors. Teachers are encouraged to serve as outsiders children can trust because sex abuse often is practiced within families and over several generations, she said. But teachers, too, have abused.
Parents should talk to their children about good touches and bad touches, Turtle said. She recommends a book, “Good Touch/Bad Touch,” by Pam Church, available at most bookstores.
Linda Kincaid, director of the Coeur d’Alene Women’s Center, has counseled victims and offenders in her social service career. Ninety-six children who stayed in the Women’s Center shelter from July 1, 2004, through June 30 this year were victims of sexual abuse, she said. Fifty-nine adults in the shelter reported they were victims of sexual abuse as children, Kincaid said.
In her last job in Missoula, Kincaid said, 75 percent of the women on government assistance who came to her for help said they’d been molested as children and 80 percent were trying to escape abusive adult relationships. Most had no money for counseling as children.
“It was just absolutely amazing. I think about what it costs our society,” Kincaid said.
Some women had grown up with sexual abuse and had to learn it wasn’t normal, she said. Kincaid taught a six-week program to restore self-esteem and teach anger management and decision-making. It’s a program she wants to start in Coeur d’Alene.
In Kootenai County, the prosecutor’s office offers an assistance program for victims in criminal cases that provides $2,500 per victim for counseling. Victim counseling is a good way to stop children from developing into offenders, Schaffer said.
“Those children with help and support can become healthy adults and not offenders,” she said.
Schaffer said she took a child to a doctor for an exam and was impressed when the doctor told the child no one should touch his private parts except a doctor or his parents if he’s hurt. More doctors need to follow that example, she said.
Schaffer also suggested that schools add a unit on sex abuse prevention to their curriculum.
“It doesn’t have to be negative, just preventive,” she said. “They can talk about it like nutrition, dental care. It’s not rocket-scientist stuff.”