“My heart fell. I don’t remember driving home. I don’t remember going inside. All I remember was terror, physical heart pain, and many tears.” Laura Davis (not her actual name) couldn’t believe this was happening, not to her own child, the love of her life.
The following story is one unfamiliar to many, but so familiar to a few. A story that pains to tell, but one so important to share.
Her family lived a normal life. Laura and her husband raised three loving children right in Holland, Michigan. Homeschooled by their parents, the children took strides in sports, music, and church. “The perfect picture, until our lives were rocked by one conversation.”
For the past six months, Laura had been noticing a change in behavior with her middle child. “She was very clingy to me, her mom. She had lost a lot of confidence and was generally ‘different.’ We just couldn’t figure it out.” Laura wanted answers. She wanted to help her child.
On September 13th, 2018, Laura picked up her middle child from her music lesson. That day, her family’s life would change.
Always looking for a way to reconnect with her kids, Laura struck up a conversation.
“Hey! Is there anything you want to talk about? Something you don’t want to talk about when your siblings aren’t around?” She responded with, “I don’t know.” Laura gently reminded her she cared about her thoughts. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Her daughter told Laura that her neighbor had been doing inappropriate things to her. She couldn’t believe it. Thoughts raced through her head. How did this happen? What do I do now? Who do I go to?
A few days later, Laura and her family arrived at the Children’s Advocacy Center, an organization dedicated to fighting child sexual abuse. She thought to herself, “How did I not know this place existed?”
Twenty-four years ago, a group of county leaders from the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, Department of Health and Human Services, and a few social workers met to discuss one brutal reality: throughout the process of investigating child sexual abuse, children had to retell their story several times.
At the time, Darcy Fluharty, the executive director for the CAC, supervised a Specialized Foster Care program. Fluharty mentioned, “I knew that the system at that time was not child friendly and that professionals were working in silos. It was critical to develop a center with a coordinated response from a multi-disciplinary team with representatives from law enforcement, CPS, medicine, mental health, prosecution, and victim advocacy.”
The system created to protect children was actually re-victimizing them, so Fluharty and a group of other community child advocates got to work.
Long time community advocate Cora Visscher and Fluharty researched what other communities were doing to combat this issue. They decided to open up a center to advocate for the youth. Fluthary mentioned, “At the time there were a couple hundred centers throughout the country. Today, there are nearly 900.”
In the August of 1998, the Children’s Advocacy Center opened (CAC), a free center dedicated to having children tell their story only once.
“We went inside, my husband and I through the main door and our daughter through the perfectly sized kid door. Upon entering, there was an immediate sense of peace, like this is where we were safe.”
The waiting room welcomed the Davis family with vibrant paintings and colorful walls. A smiling face behind the front desk warmed up the room. The family was greeted kindly and quickly brought into the conference room. A green garden with pink flowers and red bricks appeared on her left as she walked down the hall.
Laura’s daughter was then taken to the medical examination room. Large blue, yellow, and red butterflies hung on the yellow walls. A stuffed bear and a blue blanket awaited her on the seat.
After the initial interviews and medical exams, Laura mentioned how supportive the CAC was. “All three of our children as well as myself were set up with wonderful counselors and a support team of the most wonderful and compassionate people. My other two children were cared for as siblings of a trauma victim. The CAC was careful to not let anyone in our family fall through the cracks.”
Laura’s daughter thrived in expressive art therapy and music. Walking into the expressive art therapy room, cyan, lime, and orange bar stools accompanied both sides of the long, high beige table. Newly sharpened colored pencils, bright markers, and small scissors filled colorful buckets.
Not only did her daughter benefit, Davis’ entire family did. “My son got to design and print a t-shirt. My younger daughter loved the playroom, art room, and surprise trips to Cora’s closet where a new book, craft, or art supply was found to bring home.”
Two years later, the CAC continues to support the Davis family. “From being invited to group therapy opportunities, to fishing trips, and just general support, our family still considers the CAC a vital part of our continuing journey.”
The CAC not only provides treatment services, they move people and change lives. “One really neat thing that the CAC did for our family was the Christmas Elves program. I was asked to fill out a little questionnaire about ALL of my kids, not just our daughter.”
Laura remembers how sweet it was. She hoped it would remind her kids they were not alone. “Then, I went to pick up the bags, large black bags full of everything my kids loved. I sobbed.” Davis couldn’t believe how supportive the community was to people they didn’t even know.
The support and dedication of the Children’s Advocacy Center and its staff is simply unparalleled. “The staff at the CAC is simply wonderful. Not one time was I made to feel guilty, ashamed, or alone. Constant support from our counselors and our family advocate made surviving the first year of this journey livable.”
Through the support of the CAC, the Davis family has grown back stronger. “I was told by our family advocate that we were always welcome at the center. That their phones would always ring through for us. My daughter loved her time at the center. She will always remember the care and concern shown for her. The CAC will always hold a special place in our hearts.”
Adrienne Bailey, the lead therapist, works with children, just like Laura’s child, at the Children’s Advocacy Center. Her work takes on a different approach. “I use various ways to help kids express their thoughts and feelings about what has happened to them as they can heal.”
A painting of a green monkey dried on an easel as a stuffed monkey hung from the plastic tree in the corner. The vibrant yellow walls contrasted with the red curtains of the puppet stage. Here, Bailey does her work.
Through interactive therapy as simple as painting pictures or playing with muppets, Bailey can help children heal. Bailey mentioned, “One experience that I will always remember was when I worked with a teen girl who was about 15 years old. She grew up seeing domestic violence in her home and was skeptical that anyone could help her.”
Despite this, Bailey worked around that skepticism. “When she first started seeing me, she was worried and wouldn’t talk much, so we did art together. After a while, her walls came down and she started to open up about the sexual abuse that had occurred years prior by her step-grandfather.”
Bailey hopes to come alongside survivors and provide hope. “She had so much shame from the experience because she believed that what happened was her fault because she was always told to defend herself. It took time, but with counseling, she was able to heal.”
Sadly, child sexual abuse is still present in West Michigan. In fact, one in ten children will be sexually abused by their eighteenth birthday. Think about that. That needs to change, and you can be part of that change.
Education and prevention are crucial steps to fight child sexual abuse. Bailey mentioned, “I would like others to know that child sexual abuse can happen to anyone from any background. I often feel like people assume it can’t happen to them and judge others who are survivors. This is why education on the facts is so important.”
Almost 90 percent of victims of child sexual abuse know their perpetrator, whether that be a neighbor or a coach. Facts like these are alarming, but the good news is that education programs for adults and the youth can prevent this abuse.
The Children’s Advocacy Center offers several programs, such as the Darkness to Light program. Participants of this program learn how to prevent, recognize, and react appropriately to child sexual abuse. Training programs like these can prevent abuse and change a child’s life.
The Davis Family’s story is just one of many cases of child sexual abuse in West Michigan. She hopes that her story will give others the courage to seek help, to fight for themselves and others, to tell their story, and to stand up firmly for what is right.
You can educate yourself and ultimately prevent child sexual abuse. You can be that change, that person who helps others tell their story. You can stand up for what is right. You can make a difference.
Ben Sanders, Junior, West Ottawa High School