Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Child abuse silent no longer

There was a vigil in Storm Lake the other night, candles burning into the night in a silent scream against the abuse of innocent children.

It was a poignant moment, made all the more so by the parents who brought their own little ones to take part, and by Cary Brown, who bravely told of her own experiences as an abused child years ago.

She had tried to seek an escape from that abuse, and was ignored by her family, teachers and others, who assumed she must be lying.

Much has changed in a short period. Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable to hold such a public vigil, admitting to the problem we have with physical, sexual, emotional and neglect abuse right in our own comfortable little communities. There were no mandatory reporter laws until the 1990s, and in many cases, people turned their heads to the bruises. If it was reported, it might be considered a family situation, and law enforcement was unlikely to be involved. That was then...

Don't we have mixed feelings, as we see the front-page photo of the child looking at the cut-outs, just her own size, each representing some Iowa child who died as a result of abuse in 2002? And mixed feelings about the statistics - 42 cases of child abuse reported to Storm Lake Police in 2002, 13,000 children abused in Iowa in 2001?

Not mixed emotion, as the pain we must feel for these helpless innocents is as pure as there can be. But mixed feelings because we should suspect that the rising numbers in recent years do not represent more abuse suddenly happening - but much, much better awareness, reporting and protection.

The lessons have come to us with a terrible cost. A "Baby Doe" left to die in an abandoned trailer house in Storm Lake several years ago. The "Child of God" thrown into the trash to turn up in the machinery at the local recycling plant last year. Apparently, neither case will ever be solved. Discarded, unloved children who do not even have the dignity of a name. Someone, somewhere knows...

And there is Shelby Duis. The court circus has dragged on since 2000, but still no responsibility has been determined for the murder of the little girl who was systematically beaten to death. I think that most of us familiar with that case have our ideas, though, don't we? The DHS system knew all about Shelby, and did nothing to get her out of the abusive home. Even after her death, the agency did little but look to deflect blame. Legislators made a lot of noise, but accomplished very little to prevent other children from suffering.

Reports of abused children are sadly far from rare. You may recall one beaten with a belt soaked in water to make it hurt more. Others repeatedly sexually assaulted. Some left alone at a tender young age. All in our town.

These kind of crimes are not new, but the fact that we are seeing them, being exposed to them as a community, and seeing them aggressively prosecuted, is. As painful as this process is, it is progress. We can't attack such a problem until it is in the open, no longer taboo to talk about, and we are now at that point. No one should feel they have to turn their back on a hurt child any longer.

The issues are still out there - an Iowa legislative proposal to add clergy to the list of those who are mandated to report child abuse if they are aware of it; and a controversial bill that would increase the age for which reporting is mandatory from 12 to 16.

Still, sexual abuse is considered the "least-reported" crime in Iowa, and teens are the most likely victims.

The issues are controversial because many fear - a lot of the state's professionals who serve the abused among them - that toughening the reporting laws will dissuade teens who are abused from asking for help.

Knowing that teachers, ministers and so on will have to go to police with the stories will scare those young people who fear being thrown into the DHS system or the courtroom, they argue, perhaps with a point.

So, we still have a distance to go, don't we? If our system of "help" is itself so fearful to young victims, there is a need for change, and the awareness and public education that goes with it. We can't allow embarrassment or fear to keep children from telling someone who could help them.

The vigil in Storm Lake leaves me with bittersweet feelings, and I suspect many of you share them.

It is on one hand a slap to our sensibilities, a harsh wake-up call to the ugly abuses behind the scenes in even our most neighborly little cities.

On the other, it is a celebration of sorts - showing in a very public way that people do care, are aware, are willing to get involved. Whenever people care, there is hope, and in this case, our hope is that there are fewer and fewer of those child-shaped cutouts each year, until the wonderful day when there is nothing to hold a vigil about in Storm Lake any longer.