Lyndon Haviland, MPH, DrPH
CEO, Darkness to Light
A December 26 The Day article by Karen Florinstates that in 1998, 13-year-old Timothy Beemer and 14-year-old Christina Beemer disclosed to a counselor at the Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau that their father, Robert Beemer, had been sexually abusing them for years. The abuse extended to two younger siblings and a cousin, and in 2000, Beemer was sentenced to eight years in jail. Throughout the investigation and following his incarceration, Beemer continued to seek out and sexually abuse children, leaving a “trail of victims” in his wake. Since his release, he has been charged with violating parole on four different occasions, and is currently under investigation for another child-related incident. As the CEO of Darkness to Light, a nationally recognized NGO dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, and a resident of Lyme, I want to challenge our town and state to become a model for the prevention of child sexual abuse.
The way forward is clear – all adults who work with children should be trained to recognize the signs, minimize opportunity and respond to concerns or reports of sexual abuse. Talking about child sexual abuse is hard, but our children deserve the right to grow up free from abuse. Our biggest challenge is to break the silence and the stigma associated with child sexual abuse. It happens in every town, in every socio-demographic class, and our unwillingness to talk about abuse allows perpetrators to harm our children. Victims of child sexual abuse can suffer medical, social and psychological consequences throughout their lives, including an increased risk for alcohol and other substance abuse, depression, and cardio vascular disease, amongst the many potential medical consequences.
The Beemer case, like many, shows a complete lack of understanding on how to identify and respond to child sexual abuse. Despite multiple reports by his wife, discharge from the Army, and loss of a civilian position, Beemer was never charged for his offenses. When he was finally brought to justice following the disclosure of his children, he was offered a plea bargain on sentencing so they would not have to endure the trauma of testifying in court. Currently, the law provides defendants with the right to face their accuser. Unfortunately, when the accuser is a child, this becomes a complicated and traumatizing process. As Florin mentions, children often disclose in bits and pieces rather than in complete detail, may not have a full understanding of the abuse, and often recant when under pressure. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of child disclosures are valid, and state and federal legislation must evolve to meet the needs of abused children. According to Florin, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission is reviewing the systems that affect sexual assault cases.
In the United States today, one in 10 children will become a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Over the past 20 years, we have learned much about child sexual abuse indicators, prevention, and response. And yet, our national and state legislatures are woefully lacking in their understanding of the issue an how to protect children. Nevertheless, we are starting to see progress within individual states with regard to mandated reporter training on child sexual abuse identification and response. In Connecticut, the General Assembly passed an amendment in May of 2015 requiring the development of education and refresher training programs for child sexual abuse identification and reporting, to be made available to all mandated reporters, statewide
One commonality between Beemer’s known victims is that several were of school age. School personnel identify over half of all identified child abuse cases classified as causing harm to the child, more than any other profession or organizational type, including child protective services agencies and the police. Because children spend a large portion of their time outside the home in the school setting, educators are ideally positioned to protect. Despite this, two-thirds of teachers do not receive specific training in preventing, recognizing, or responding to child sexual abuse. In states with mandated reporting legislation in place, nearly a quarter of school personnel have never received any oral or written guidelines on the requirements of their state.
One of Beemer’s children and victims, Lorraine Beemer, disclosed drug use and sexual promiscuity at a young age. Substance abuse problems beginning in childhood or adolescence, as well as oversexualized behavior, are highly common consequences of child sexual abuse. Age-inappropriate behavior can be an important and telling sign that abuse is occurring. According to Lorraine, “I needed control and I knew with my body I could control all things the world said I would be.” Lorraine’s teachers and counselors failed to recognize the warning signs of sexual abuse, and were unable to respond with the help she needed. With training, all teachers and all adults working with children should be able to recognize the signs, react responsibly and help create safe environments where children can learn and thrive.
Child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a wide range of individuals with diverse motives. It is impossible to identify specific characteristics that are common to all those who sexually abuse children, but one behavioral trait shared by abusers like Robert Beemer is the tendency to seek out opportunities that allow access to children while avoiding notice by the community and law enforcement. By training and empowering educators to identify warning signs and take measures that protect children, we create a community better prepared to help children thrive, free of the trauma of sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse prevention and response training may allow one educator to better protect hundreds of children during the course of his or her career. Imagine how many children are protected when an entire school system is trained – from counselor, to teacher, to bus driver – to protect the children in its care?
CLICK HERE to learn more about Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children® prevention training, and how it can help schools, youth serving organizations, and families protect children from sexual abuse.