'You need to believe them' Bemidji non-profit works with child victims of sexual abuse
BEMIDJI – The hallway is quiet and clean.
Its walls are painted with bright blue skies, flowers, golden suns, butterflies and birds. The hallway leads victims of unspeakable abuse to safe places, where truths that would cause most to shudder can be told.
They are often children. And they are often confused, trepidatious and scared.
It is a soothing environment that belies the stories of abuse, neglect, violence and victimization that are told there.
It is the only place of its kind in northern Minnesota.
“People don’t like to talk about this, and it’s hard to wrap your head around it,” says Aria Trudeau, Executive Director of the Family Advocacy Center of Northern Minnesota.
“This” is sexual abuse, and the Family Advocacy Center in Bemidji is home to that clean, quiet and soothing hallway.
“I think that first we need to become cognizant of the fact that child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate,” Trudeau says. “It knows no boundaries. It knows no socio-economic status, no race, no sex.
“It doesn’t matter what neck of the woods that you live in, or how much or how little education that you have, or if you’re a boy or a girl. It just doesn’t matter.”
A Safe Place
The hallway sits just inside a glass door, tucked into the corner of a building not far from Lake Bemidji. It leads children to a room filled with trucks for boys and a few dolls for girls. Color-splashed walls, in places serving as an art gallery for their coloring book-works, keep silent and safe watch over the children. A table not more than 2 feet high offers a workbench for the child artists; its centerpiece, a box of markers and crayons, colored pencils and pens.
This is the playroom. It is a place for children to be children, and nothing else. The work of discovering the unspeakable takes place elsewhere.
“We see over 200 kids a year,” Trudeau says. “That number is not high compared to what we know about child sexual and physical abuse.”
Here’s what else she knows: Most instances of abuse, 90 percent Trudeau says, go unreported; most take place more than once and, often, over an extended period of time; most are committed by a person who is close to the victim or the victim’s family; and, most disturbingly, the perpetrator will “groom” the victim to establish a trusting and close relationship.
“Really what that means is that it’s not typically likely that a perpetrator is going to start touching a child right away,” Trudeau says. “They’re going to groom that victim.
“Sometimes they’ll establish a great deal of rapport with the person before anything starts to happen. When stuff does start to happen, which is little, subtle stuff, the child might not recognize that it is even happening. And by the time it is to the point of something that’s really uncomfortable to the child, it’s just so very confusing because it’s like ‘this person that I like so much is doing this, but I don’t think this is what grown-ups are supposed to do. But maybe it is.’”
The unspeakable begins with seemingly harmless closeness, becomes confusing behavior and often ends with a horrendous act, and the victimization of a child.
“It’s a process,” Trudeau says.
Funded by Charity
The hallway that welcomes children was painted by Bemidji State University students who volunteered their time for the project. It is a fitting fact considering how Trudeau’s facility pays its bills.
Taxpayers have nothing to do with the work that goes on here. No federal or state grants go to keep the lights on and the hallway heated. Sanford Bemidji Medical Center plays the largest role in keeping the Family Advocacy Center going, but donations from members of the community, often anonymous, also help.
Those donors help to keep the hallway clean, but they also pay the salaries of the five women who run the facility. Two have the responsibility of providing medical analysis and treatment of both adult and adolescent victims of abuse. Two more employees – a family support advocate, who provides assistance in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of abuse, and a family care coordinator, who constructs a plan to deal with the long-term effects of abuse – round out the team.
Then, there is Trudeau. She is the person who children can confide in. Her office is their safe place, where the unspeakable can be spoken.
She is the only person of her kind in northern Minnesota.
There are many reasons why her center needs to exist, Trudeau says. But the discovery of abuse, often a painful and traumatic admission of victimization by a child still struggling to understand what happened, is the biggest one of all. The safety and serenity of Trudeau’s halls and rooms offer a single space in which children can speak about what happened to them.
The unspeakable does not have to be repeated.
“It’s not about the what and the how of what we do,” Trudeau says. “It comes down to the why for me. I wouldn’t want my children or your children shuttled all over town to give the depositions. I often think, where would children go if our center didn’t exist? How would the services be coordinated?”
They would go to law enforcement. The Bemidji Police Department and Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office handled a combined 63 reports of sex crimes involving children from October 2011 to this past January. Those figures, compiled by a query of the records system at the Law Enforcement Center, may not represent the complete picture, according to records supervisor Kay Swanson.
“What we are not able to query are all the cases where there is not enough information to code,” Swanson says. “We get cases where someone reports that they think someone was abused, unsubstantiated reports, etc. Those do not get coded (into the system) because we don’t know a crime really happened.”
This also means it is impossible to tell if a crime didn't take place.
But there is overlap in the reporting of abuse. For instance, a report taken by Beltrami County Health and Human Services, of which there were 12 in 2012 and two so far this year, might then be passed on to Trudeau and her staff, who after investigation take their findings to law enforcement.
The true amount of instances of abuse, already blurred by the secretive nature of the crime, is difficult to calculate.
“Part of the problem with this issue is that sexual violence and child sexual abuse are complex,” says Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “And our systems are not set up to capture the complexity.”
In 2012, Bemidji and Beltrami County officers took 44 reports of sex crimes involving children, and sent 32 cases to Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver’s office. Of those, 19 have been processed and 13 remain under review, Faver said.
But, like most crimes, the number of reports of child sexual abuse taken by police, social service agencies and facilities like the Family Advocacy Center are larger than the number of convicted offenders put behind bars. The justice system has a filtering effect on such cases.
Data on child sexual abuse cases that reach the level of prosecution can be found on many Minnesota county websites, but “that is, of course, a smaller number than reported to police,” Dunn says.
Of the 19 cases processed last year by the small group of attorneys working in Faver’s office, nine perpetrators were charged. The remaining 10 cases were sent back to police for further investigation. Of the nine offenders charged with child sexual abuse, six plead guilty, one was dismissed and two are awaiting trial, Faver said.
So far this year, six reports of sex crimes against children have been taken by police. Five were sent to Faver’s office, three have resulted in charges and two are under review.
In all, 321 children passed through the Family Advocacy Center in 2012. According to records there, two were endangered by drugs, nine were victims of neglect, 35 were witnesses to violence, 39 were victims of acute sexual assault, in some cases, rape, 54 were physically abused and 182 were victims of some form of sexual abuse.
Despite the overlap among agencies charged with protecting the innocent, one statistic, sitting at the same number Trudeau says represents abuse that is actually reported, might be a surprise to many. A 2013 study by the state’s Department of Public Health showed that 10 percent of Minnesotans were sexually abused as children.
In a devastating appraisal of the situation, Dunn says those who are abused as children often go on to commit the same acts themselves, representing a disturbing cycle of abuse handed down from victim to victim.
“Children who have been mistreated are often afraid to tell anyone, because they think they will be blamed or that no one will believe them,” Trudeau says. “Sometimes they remain quiet because the person who abused them is someone they love very much, or someone they fear very much, or both.”
Fighting for Justice
Trudeau and her team can only do so much to protect children. Sometimes, they must repeat the unspeakable in court, where perpetrators fight for their own rights in the justice system.
Two men, one convicted and another simply charged, have appeared in court so far this year, catching the eyes of many in this community of more than 13,000.
Karl John Sauer faces more than a decade in prison when he is sentenced in late April. Sauer pleaded guilty in February and was convicted on charges related to rape and sexual deviancy against a 6-year-old during a three-month span in the summer of 2010. And John Thorn Wangberg, a former teacher with three decades of work in Bemidji-area schools, was arraigned in January on two felony second-degree sexual conduct charges.
Wangberg, 58, hanged himself in his home a week after being formally charged in court.
The center’s work represents a vital cog in the prosecution and conviction of those who take advantage of the least powerful among us. But it is far from an easy task.
“I think the first thing that we have to take into consideration is that they’re children,” Trudeau says. “They first have to tell somebody for the process to start happening. Obviously when you’re a child, sometimes you don’t know who to tell, or have anybody to tell. The second component we know about with child sexual abuse in particular is that the perpetrator is often somebody the child knows.”
In 96 percent of cases, Trudeau says, children are abused by people who are close.
“It’s really a crime of secrecy. There’s a lot of shame and guilt that goes along with being a victim of that.”
That’s why the hallway, the offices and playroom, the employees and atmosphere of the center are welcoming, soothing, unassuming and peaceful.
They must be, so secrets can be spoken softly and safely.
“Sometimes, they haven’t disclosed abuse at all. And until an environment is created in which they feel safe enough to talk about something, then they do,” Trudeau says. “It’s all about the child here.”
Telling the Story
Trudeau and her colleagues are not necessarily in the business of investigation, she says. They are there every day to have conversations. This is the distinguishing characteristic of the center, and one that Trudeau takes seriously.
“Essentially we’re the front liners in the investigation of child abuse,” she says. “What that means, though, is that we’re unbiased front liners. And so our job is to create an environment that encourages the accuracy of the child’s statement.”
There is no leading and, only if the situation requires it, some asking. In Trudeau’s office, there is mainly talking.
“We acknowledge that some kids don’t have anything to tell, or today’s not their day to talk about it. And we’re OK with that.”
Just inside the glass doors and at the threshold of the hallway is another path. At its end is a conference room with a large television and a table where employees of the center consult with parents of victims, and review interviews that are sometimes later used as evidence against perpetrators. Across this second, painted hallway is a small, hospital-like room with medical supplies.
It is here where the physical well-being of victims and non-victims alike is checked. The center, along with dealing with victims of sexual abuse, also conducts forensic examinations of the physically abused, neglected, those who are endangered due to exposure to drugs and those who have been witness to violence.
“We might be the front liners in the investigation of abuse, but our goal doesn’t stop there,” Trudeau says. “We are going to give them a medical exam so that when they walk out of these doors they know that their body is normal and healthy.”
The center sees victims who are adults and children. This fact, combined with their domestic violence intervention program, makes the Family Advocacy Center unique.
It is one of only a few places of its kind in the country.
“The benefit of having us in your community is this is all we do every day,” Trudeau says. “We’re unique because we’re kind of a family violence center. We serve all types of victims under one roof.”
The signs of abuse are difficult to distinguish. Often, they are concealed with silence spawned by fear and shame. There are no typical victims, and no typical perpetrators. There are no places where abuse is more prevalent, and no places where it occurs with less frequency.
The secrecy of the crime and the confusion of its victims aids in its lack of detection.
“The fact of the matter is that, it could be my children or your children or your neighbor’s children. We think that it doesn’t happen in our home or our community, but it does,” Trudeau says. “To get that point across is important, and I don’t know how to do that.”
There is, however, one thing that can be done to protect the innocent. Before another child walks down the hallway, before they enter the playroom or Trudeau’s office, if the unspeakable is spoken, let it be said.
“If a child tells you something has happened, you have to believe them,” Trudeau says. “You need to believe them.”