Cases like that of Jerry Sandusky, the football coach who used his charity and prominence to sexually abuse children, might make headlines, but nearly every day child victims in Montgomery County report similar sexual abuse.
Abusers often are opportunists who groom their victims, building a rapport that can turn into violence.
It might start out as simple as buying candy and gifts, or being the cool person that the kids trust, said Detective Katie Leggett, a child abuse and sexual assault detective in Montgomery County Police’s Family Crimes Division.
However, when that attention focuses on one child, or progresses to special dinners, trips, sleep-overs or late-night text messages, it can be a red flag, she said.
Unfortunately, parents often are not alarmed because they trust the person, or are too consumed in their own lives to see what is going on.
In her eight years investigating child sexual abuse, Leggett’s unit has had cases involving celebrities, teachers, priests, high-ranking officials — and coaches.
Although not every involved coach or teacher is or will become an abuser, parents should know who they are leaving their children with as much as possible.
Sandusky, the former Penn State University football coach, was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in June. A month later, a woman came forward claiming she and prominent Washington, D.C.-area swimming coach Rick Curl had an inappropriate sexual relationship when she was 13 years old. Montgomery County police is investigating her allegations.
Sexual abuse of children is not isolated in select socioeconomic levels, communities, ethnic groups or genders, said Larissa Halstead, who investigates child sex abuse for Montgomery County’s Child Welfare Services.
It happens to children of all ages, from all backgrounds, at the hands of offenders ranging from coaches, family members, teachers and adult acquaintances to even other children, Halstead said. It happens to boys and girls. It happens everywhere.
From July 2011 through June 2012, Montgomery County investigated 322 allegations of child sex abuse, Halstead said.
Not every child victim reports what has happened to them.
Some fear they will be blamed. Some feel guilty. Some feel responsible. Some face threats from their abuser. Developmentally younger children also may think everyone already knows what they know, Halstead said. Others do not tell what happened until they reach adulthood.
In the case of Curl’s alleged victim, it took 29 years for her to come forward.
Frequently, teachers, doctors or other caregivers are the ones who make a report, but Halstead said her unit also receives anonymous tips from community members and some children do come forward as victims.
Children can be adept at hiding abuse, but victims often display symptoms, red flags that something sexually traumatic has happened to them, Halstead said.
Bed wetting, regression in potty training, a sexual knowledge beyond a child’s normal awareness, sexual play with toys or peers, drawings or even statements made by children can indicate sexual abuse, she said.
Unfortunately, because child sexual abuse is not in most people’s frame of reference, they can mistake a symptom of abuse, such as regression in potty training, as a medical or other problem, she said.
“Child sex abuse will always exist,” Halstead said. “I think the more that we can come together as a community and acknowledge that, the better off our kids are and the safer our kids are.”
Disclosure is probable cause
When allegations are made, police operate on the basis that the victim is telling the truth, Leggett said.
“The only evidence that we need is a victim’s disclosure. That’s the probable cause that we need and at the end of the day that’s chargeable,” she said. However, police work to build a case with more evidence.
The Family Crimes Division, the county’s largest specialized police unit, frequently investigates allegations together with the county Child Welfare Services unit that handles cases of sexual abuse by caregivers — including coaches — or family members.
It can be easier for parents to stay in denial because coming to terms with the abuse can force very challenging circumstances on a family, Halstead said.
Beyond the abuse itself, reporting what happened can be traumatic for a child, she said. In child welfare services, the goal is to minimize the trauma as much as possible.
“We put the child before the criminal investigation, we put the child, really, before anything else,” Halstead said. “We’re not going to compromise the child’s emotional well-being to get a conviction or two, for our own purposes.”
Justice cannot always be served, but the child can be, said Tom Grazio, director of the Tree House Child Assessment Center in Rockville, which works with officials to investigate cases and victims to reduce trauma and promote healing.
“I like justice,” he said. “I mean, these guys are criminals.”
But focusing on the child can make a difference so that, in time, the child can cope with what they suffered.
“The only way to heal is to face what happened,” he said. “In time, getting past it is justice if you can make that happen.”
‘Not a normal person anymore’
As a mother of two young children, Leggett said what she has seen in her years investigating child sex abuse has changed her.
“I'm not a normal person anymore,” she said. “My life has changed because of what I see. All of the signs are there for me. I don’t look at people the same anymore.”
But that does not mean she will prevent her children from participating in sports, which she said provide valuable lessons and experiences for children.
“I think the concern still is how do we stop this,” Leggett said. “I don’t know. Nobody has that answer.”
When Grazio was first hired to work in child protective services in 1970s, he said his hope was to help “wipe out” child sex abuse in his lifetime.
That is not likely to happen, but not for lack of trying, he said.
Now his hope is that someone else is entering the field with the same goal.
For now, education remains the most effective tool police and social workers have.
“While I think we have made, as a community, great strides in educating, our work is clearly not done because we are still getting cases,” Leggett said. “And that is just probably a smidgen of what is really going on out there.”