Brave voice hoping to stem child sexual abuse

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When Tiffani Stone spoke about childhood sexual abuse before a group assembled in the Missouri capital last year, she didn't rely on data drawn from advocacy websites, accounts from counselors or the heart-wrenching tales she heard while working with troubled young people.

Stone lived it. By the time she reached the age of 10, Stone had been sexually abused by three different people.

So when Stone, a 24-year-old Southeast Missouri State University graduate, last year shared the traumas of her childhood in Jefferson City, Mo., those in attendance quickly realized she knew what she was talking about.

"I just told them my story," Stone said Wednesday. "I told them a little bit about what happened to me and what I thought was important about dealing with child abuse."

Her experience, and how she overcame the trauma, led to Stone being asked to participate in a 14-member task force that spent last year studying ways to prevent child sexual abuse. The work culminated earlier this month when the panel, which was created by a 2011 state law, offered 22 recommendations to Gov. Jay Nixon, lawmakers and the State Board of Education.

The task force was made up of legislators, law enforcement officers, children's advocates and other experts. Members released a report Jan. 3 that recommends changes including community-based prevention, mental-health services, professional training, funding and altering state law.

"We think of the report as a blueprint," said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy of Missouri Kids First. "There's no one organization that can do everything. So we hope that each different organization or person can tackle one particular aspect; just start chipping away at the problem."

The change to laws would need to involve doctors, social workers, teachers, ministers and anyone who would be required to report suspected sexual abuse of children, van Schenkhof said.

Missouri law requires that suspicions are "immediately reported" or "cause a report to be made" to the Missouri Department of Social Services, Children's Division.

That has created a "loophole," she said, where a person reporting a concern can submit information to another person in his or her organization, who then can decide whether to file a report. Loopholes like that, she said, led to infamous incidents of child sexual abuse like that at Penn State.

Other law changes would require more timely reporting requirements and eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting cases of first-degree statutory rape and first-degree statutory sodomy.

Not every action would require a vote of lawmakers or the signature of the governor. The task force suggested early intervention for young people who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior. Mental-health services for sexually abused children need to be expanded, van Schenkhof said.

"This type of abuse is one of the most devastating social problems we have," she said.

Tammy Gwaltney agrees there is much to be done. Gwaltney is the president and CEO of Beacon Health Center in Benton, Mo., which provides services to children who have been sexually abused, as well as to their families. Gwaltney said the task force's 32-page report put onto paper what she has been preaching for years.

"The average resident may say, 'What can I possibly do?'" she said. "The first thing I would recommend is just take time to read the report."

With statistics suggesting one in four are abused at some point, child sexual abuse has become an epidemic. She said if she seems to use language normally reserved for health issues, that's because this one is.

"People are afraid to talk about this. Were they afraid to talk about polio?" she said. "This is not a conversation about sex. It's a discussion about violence and abuse. Tell your children what they should do or the offender will. Arm your children with information. Do something to help cut into this problem."

That's one of the reasons Stone was able to share the worst time in her life.

She told prosecutors, social workers and legislators that, even at 10 year old, she knew what to do -- tell an adult. She also learned what adults should not do -- blame the child.

"She said I was enticing him," Stone said of her biological mother's reaction. "I didn't even know what that meant. So the abuse continued and she let it continue."

Stone finally told another adult -- her grandmother -- who filed a police report. Stone was placed in the care of a loving woman who raised her. She graduated in the top 5 percent of her high school, earned a college degree and now works with disadvantaged children.

When the topic comes up, Stone tells anyone who will listen what to do if someone is doing something to them that they know is wrong.

It's something she knew, even at 10. "Tell an adult. Keep telling them. If they won't listen, find one who will."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

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