Why sex­u­ally abused chil­dren don’t scream

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Sarah Chang watches video ev­i­dence of sex crimes. Young vic­tims en­dure even the worst in si­lence.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Sarah Chang is a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who spe­cial­izes in child ex­ploita­tion crimes. sarahchang.feed­back@gmail.com

Dur­ing my first week as a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor of sex­ual abuse crimes against chil­dren, one of my col­leagues told me her chief cop­ing mech­a­nism: Turn the sound off when you have to watch a video mul­ti­ple times. This ad­vice scared me. I imag­ined chil­dren scream­ing, cry­ing and shriek­ing in pain — the stuff of night­mares.

My of­fice is re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing and prose­cut­ing such crimes, namely the pro­duc­tion, pos­ses­sion and traf­fick­ing of child pornog­ra­phy. My first case file con­tained mul­ti­ple CDs and DVDs show­ing a young girl be­ing sex­u­ally abused by her fa­ther, who filmed his crimes with a hand­held cam­era.De­spite my col­league’ s warn­ing, I knew I couldn’ t re­main deaf dur­ing my first pass at the ev­i­dence. I went to our foren­sic com­puter lab and braced my­self.

But all I heard was si­lence. The 5-year-old girl said noth­ing — not even a sob. Dis­turbed, I con­tin­ued to watch each video with the sound on. I tried to cor­rect the noise­less­ness by turn­ing the vol­ume up as high as it could go. The quiet was too deaf­en­ing, too de­feat­ing to ac­cept. Surely, th­ese chil­dren must make a sound?

But in video af­ter video, I wit­nessed silent suf­fer­ing. I later learned that this is a typ­i­cal re­ac­tion of young sex­ual abuse vic­tims. Psy­chi­a­trists say the si­lence con­veys their sense of help­less­ness, which also man­i­fests in their re­luc­tance to re­port the in­ci­dents and their ten­dency to ac­com­mo­date their abusers. If chil­dren do dis­close their abuse, their re­ports are of­ten am­biva­lent, some­times fol­lowed by a com­plete re­trac­tion and a re­turn to si­lence.

The help­less­ness th­ese chil­dren feel is rooted in the breach of trust they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. Of­ten, their abusers are peo­ple they ex­pected would pro­tect

them. More than 80 per­cent of sex­ual abuse of­fenses against chil­dren are com­mit­ted by peo­ple they know — par­ents, rel­a­tives, day­care providers and other trusted adults, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 Jus­tice Depart­ment re­port. Stud­ies show that chil­dren in those cases, par­tic­u­larly those abused by a parental fig­ure, are more likely to re­cant their sto­ries of abuse, if they re­port them at all.

Abusers of­ten use ex­plicit co­er­cion or prom­ises to com­pel chil­dren into si­lence. I see this dy­namic of­ten: A fa­ther, an un­cle or a teacher, for in­stance, tells the child that the sex­ual abuse is an act of love and should re­main se­cret. It’s an ef­fec­tive tac­tic. A 2014 study found that a child is more likely to main­tain his or her prom­ise to keep a par­ent’s se­cret if the child has a high de­gree of trust in the par­ent and be­lieves that keep­ing a se­cret demon­strates trust­wor­thi­ness. For chil­dren abused by some­one they trust, this is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic. When fa­mil­ial in­ti­macy and re­la­tion­ships of trust en­gen­der si­lence, chil­dren may not even re­al­ize that they are be­ing abused.

But even when they do, loy­alty keeps chil­dren from com­ing for­ward. Two years ago, I pros­e­cuted ac as ein­whic ha­man in his late30s sex­u­ally abused his daugh­ter from ages 9 to 13. The truth came out only when his daugh­ter be­friended a school coun­selor — an adult she trusted out­side of her abu­sive home. In her first in­ter­view with law en­force­ment, recorded on video, her speech was hes­i­tant and her af­fect was shy. She re­peat­edly told of­fi­cers that she didn’t want to talk about it, and she feared get­ting her fa­ther in trou­ble. He had told her that he would go to jail if she told any­one what they did to­gether. Even­tu­ally, he con­fessed and pleaded guilty, re­ceiv­ing a sen­tence of 27 years.

The scope of this prob­lem is enor­mous. The Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren has re­viewed more than 147 mil­lion images and videos of child pornog­ra­phy. About 9,600 vic­tims have been iden­ti­fied (of­ten, mul­ti­ple images or videos ex­ist of each child), though there are prob­a­bly mil­lions more suf­fer­ing in si­lence. Tech­nol­ogy has made it eas­ier to match newly dis­cov­ered porno graphic images to known cases, so we know whether the abuse is on­go­ing, an un­solved case or an old case in which the vic­tim has been res­cued. But even with ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies and large data­bases, not ev­ery child can be iden­ti­fied. The per­pe­tra­tors of­ten scrub the images of all dis­tin­guish­ing in­for­ma­tion be­fore they are dis­trib­uted—no G PS co­or­di­nates, no date stamps, no make and model of the cam­era used, noth­ing.

While si­lence in the face of such hor­rific abuse of­ten pre­vents its dis­cov­ery, too much speech can cause its own prob­lems. In the 1980s and 1990s, a se­ries of failed pros­e­cu­tions, such as the in­fa­mous McMartin Preschool case — in which in­no­cent day-care work­ers near Los An­ge­les were charged with rap­ing and sodom­iz­ing dozens of small chil­dren, largely based on the chil­dren’s co­erced, fab­ri­cated sto­ries — drove re­searchers to ex­am­ine the pro­duc­tion of false mem­o­ries in sex abuse cases. That re­search has been in­con­clu­sive, with some stud­ies find­ing that chil­dren are very sus­cep­ti­ble to sug­gested sex abuse mem­o­ries and oth­ers con­clud­ing that this dy­namic is rare.

Still, de­fense lawyers of­ten ac­cuse chil­dren who dis­close abuse flu­ently and un­flinch­ingly of be­ing coached by law en­force­ment. It’s true that child sex abuse vic­tims are rarely can­did when they first talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences, but af­ter re­peated in­ter­views — which are nec­es­sary in the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tory process — they can be­come well prac­ticed and fall prey to ac­cu­sa­tions of hav­ing been coached. Un­for­tu­nately, this has come to have the op­po­site ef­fect of the McMartin Preschool case, caus­ing le­git­i­mate cases of abuse to be dis­counted.

In a case I pros­e­cuted two years ago, I met a sur­vivor about a year af­ter she dis­closed her fa­ther’s crimes against her. By then, she was a 15-year-old ex­pert on how to speak with adults about sex­ual abuse. The crim­i­nal jus­tice process, es­pe­cially on the fed­eral level, is slow and of­ten asks vic­tims to pro­vide the same in­for­ma­tion in mul­ti­ple set­tings to dif­fer­ent in­ves­ti­gat­ing agen­cies. In con­trast to her first recorded in­ter­view, she gave mat­ter-of-fact an­swers in our meet­ing. I didn’t need to ask sen­si­tively phrased, pro­gres­sively more com­pre­hen­sive ques­tions. She knew how she was ex­pected to iden­tify the sex act: He put his pe­nis in­side her vagina. Her an­swers to ques­tions were un­feel­ing and al­most clin­i­cal.

Child sex abuse vic­tims face a dilemma. To be rec­og­nized as vic­tims, they can­not re­main silent, but they must be silent enough to seem au­then­ti­cally hurt.

When I be­gan prose­cut­ing th­ese crimes, I had to close the door to my of­fice af­ter view­ing images of chil­dren be­ing sex­u­ally abused. The images were dev­as­tat­ing, leav­ing me shaken. On some days, I had to look at 50 images, and on oth­ers, I viewed 300. Some­times there was video, which I came to dread the most. Not only were the chil­dren silent, but their eyes were also dead. I don’t know if that’s a re­sult of sur­vival, ac­com­mo­da­tion or fear. Maybe it’s all of those things.

We think si­lence can’t in­di­cate that some­thing hurts. With­out an ex­pres­sion of pain, we as­sume there’s no in­jury. The pain scale at the doc­tor’s of­fice dis­plays a smil­ing face over a zero to rep­re­sent no pain, while the worst pain, a “10,” is rep­re­sented by a face crum­pled in agony with tears fall­ing. Too of­ten, our so­ci­ety im­plic­itly uses this scale to judge abused chil­dren’s emo­tional pain. If they’re not cry­ing, if their faces are ex­pres­sion­less, we as­sume they must not be hurt­ing. We refuse to hear si­lence as any­thing but a vac­uum of feel­ing, a void in ex­pe­ri­ence.

But in re­al­ity, a voice­less cry is of­ten the most pow­er­ful one. Even though I en­coun­tered si­lence on many of the videos recorded by abusers, I de­cided that I would leave the sound on. Shield­ing my ears from the hor­rific acts done to th­ese chil­dren would mute their pain and di­min­ish my abil­ity to give them a voice. One girl didn’t scream be­cause her brother threat­ened to kill her. An­other didn’t say any­thing be­cause her fa­ther told her to keep it a se­cret. Re­gard­less of what prompted it, the si­lence is deaf­en­ing. It makes au­di­ble the psy­cho­log­i­cal hold an abuser has over a child. Si­lence can be the most dev­as­tat­ing ev­i­dence of sex­ual abuse; it can be the sound of pain it­self.


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