Child sex abuse remains a crisis in South Florida and around the country. Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking of hundreds of young girls in Palm Beach County, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands has raised national interest in the issue. But the majority of these cases are happening on an individual level and often with someone who the victim knows.
On this Thursday, Jan. 16 episode of Sundial, the program focused on the issues of child sex abuse, understanding how predators operate and the statute of limitations for victims to file charges. Sexual predators have found an easy access point scrolling through social media and targeting children on gaming platforms and online chat rooms. The interactions can lead to crimes of sextortion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 97 percent of teenage boys and 83 percent of girls in America play video games. Last fall, the F.B.I. launched an awareness campaign for middle and high schools to encourage children to seek help if they’ve experienced any for of sexual abuse.
Lawmakers are taking steps in Florida to support victims of child sex abuse. On Wednesday, a legislative house panel in Tallahassee unanimously approved a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to initiate a criminal case against their abuser. This bill comes as states around the country have expanded the statute of limitations for civil cases involving victims of child sex abuse.
Host Luis Hernandez was joined by a panel of experts: Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative; Jennifer Freeman, an attorney whose clients include girls who were abused by Jeffrey Epstein; and Kathryn Robb, an attorney in Tallahassee and the Executive Director of Child U.S. Advocacy.
Here’s an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited lightly for clarity:
WLRN: There was a recent New York Times investigation into this phenomenon and they found a number of these child sextortion cases. They went through the text messages between the child victims and these predators. And we got to see how quickly an interaction can escalate into something that becomes sexual. What are some of the forms to de-escalate the situation? What's recommended for parents and kids?
FRANKS: Well, this is an incredibly difficult area. Especially when we're looking at the kinds of communications that ramp up very quickly. Predators will say you're very pretty. Or I'm sure you're very confident or something along the lines of a very flattering or complementary kind of conversation. It quickly becomes if you trust me, if you like me, why don't you send me some information or why don't you send me a photo?
And so then you have this kind of trap. So if that is something that the target gives up, then the next thing you know is that is being used to shame that particular minor. How do you stop that? You know, one of the things that has to be done is parents have to talk to their kids about the fact that things like this could happen. If we imagine a real playground where there are lots of kids congregating and there are just a lot of adults milling about, asking them a lot of questions and having conversations, parents would be unnerved by that.
And they would probably set their kids down and say, don't have conversations with people like this. The problem with the virtual playground is that, of course, you don't know who's talking to your kids and you don't know what they're saying to them. And you don't know if they're adults and you don't know if they're kids. And something that would sound incredibly suspicious coming from an adult would not sound so suspicious coming from up here.
One of the critical challenges for victims of child sexual abuse is getting to that point where you feel comfortable to talk about (your abuse) to open up and share that story with people. What do we know from the research about individual's ability to get to that point when they do? Is it a certain age? Is there a certain point after how many years passed before they can finally say this happened to me?
FREEMAN: The average age of a person to come forward, it's shocking, perhaps is age 52.
So it could be decades later.
FREEMAN: And there are so many reasons for this, whether it's fear, intimidation, psychological issues, depression, substance abuse, so many, many issues that could make someone not come forward.
ROB: I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. And Jennifer's right. The research tells us that the average age is about age 52. I certainly didn't come out publicly and talk about it until I was in my 40s. There's a lot of shame involved. There's a lot of secrecy. Most children who are sexually abused. The data says about 90 percent, know their predator. And so it's really hard to come forward and to whether you're identifying a family member, a coach, a teacher, a clergy member. It's really difficult to sort of break through those boundaries where you're supposed to hold this person in high esteem and that causes a delay.
FREEMAN: One of the largest number of clients we have approximately 250 clients with claims against one doctor at Rockefeller University. And people don't necessarily think of their doctor as being a child sex abuser, but that happens as well.
WLRN Producer Alejandra Martinez contributed to this show.