I was a school counselor in a small, K through 12, private school in another state. Mostly my work days were filled with scheduling issues, arranging standardized test taking, assigning advanced placement rosters, talking with ambitious parents about college prep for their children, and the occasional recalcitrant child with an attitude problem. One day the school nurse asked me if I would talk to a 7-year-old girl who was frequently in her office complaining of a stomach ache.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with her,” said the nurse. “I think she’s just trying to get out of class. Could you talk to her and see if you can find out what’s going on?”
As I agreed, I was mentally picturing this shy, withdrawn girl who was a good student with no visible friendships. The day she came into my office for the first time, her eyes were big and filled with apprehension. Our talk that first day wasn’t terribly productive and I didn’t expect it to be because she was so painfully shy. I wanted to gain her trust and help her understand that she could talk to me. However, she was adamant that her stomach really did hurt when she said it did. I quickly let her know that I believed her.
Over the next couple of months we met regularly. I began to notice that her reports of a stomach ache followed a pattern. Her divorced mother worked full-time to support them. Three days a week, she took the bus to her grandmother’s house after school. On the other days, her mother’s new boyfriend (we’ll call him “Joe”) picked her up to look after her after school. It was on those days that her stomach hurt, that she was hoping her mother would be called to take her home. This made me curious, but I didn’t suspect child sexual abuse.
One day as we were talking, I casually noted that her stomach seemed to hurt on days when she had to go home with Joe. She burst into tears and refused to talk any more. The next time we talked, I didn’t press her but let her know that she could tell me anything and it would be ok. I asked her how her stomach felt. She was silent for a long time. Finally, she said, “It doesn’t matter. Nobody’s gonna’ do anything.”
Cautiously I asked her, “What do you want me to do something about? Please tell me what’s wrong.”
She began crying in earnest. Through her tears she sobbed, “ I don’t want him to touch me anymore. I just want it to stop. Please make him stop!” Stunned, I began to comfort her and frantically search my mind for what to do next. I knew I had to tell her that I believed her. It’s critical for a child who is being molested to know that they are believed. I also had to let her know that I would have to tell someone else who could try to make it stop. That was the hard part, because I knew what a disruption it would cause in this child’s life. However, I made the hotline call. The outcome to the story was not swift or easy, but the man was arrested and charged with child molestation. Mother and daughter went to counseling at the Child Advocacy Center and she began to heal.
A few years later, my husband’s job was transferring us to another city. One day before I left she stopped by my office to say words I will never forget: “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for believing me.”
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