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How child sex abuse affects Hall County and what’s being done about it
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They have nothing to be ashamed of. They didn’t do anything wrong. When this is all over, they’ll be even stronger.

Those are the key points Wanda Vance, Hall County chief assistant district attorney, repeats when working with children who may have been sexually abused in the more than 160 child molestation cases that have come through her office since 2014.

The prosecutor said she hopes it sinks in and eventually takes hold as children receive counseling and therapy.

One of the primary agencies providing that therapy in Hall County is the Children’s Center for Hope and Healing, which held its annual gala Saturday to support its 35th year of services.

Executive Director Sam Shoemaker said many may not know what the center on Gainesville’s Main Street does.

“Our bread and butter is we provide no-cost therapy to children and adults who have been sexually abused,” he said.

What the need looks like

The center served 1,828 individuals and their caretakers in 2018, with most being children. Though Shoemaker and Cindy Wilson, development and finance director, said they feel people are unaware of the services they provide, their partner agencies across the county know to where to direct people in need of their help.

It feels like a growing need to some, but Shoemaker said research shows fewer children are sexually abused now than in the early 1990s. In the past, there was less awareness and reporting of childhood sexual abuse, he said.

“It wasn’t because there is more right now than it was back then. Actually, the incidence of child sexual abuse back in the early 1990s — research said that 1 in 5 children would be sexually abused before the age of 18,” he said. More recent data puts that ratio at 1 in 10, Shoemaker said.

Vance said child molestations have consistently been a considerable percentage of the caseload at the district attorney’s office, though she did not have a specific percentage to cite.

And the trauma can have long-ranging effects, she said.

"Most of the women that are in prison are victims of molestation or rape,” Vance said. “So many of the adult offenders that we see have this kind of trauma in their past, so we recognize that stopping this and protecting children is going to make all of us more productive as adults and have a safer, more productive, happier society.”

For those who are affected, it is important to get them help as soon as possible, Wilson said.

Shoemaker said the center sees a lot of kids between the ages of 3 and 5 who only need 10-12 sessions.

“I think a lot of people who aren’t educated in this think that, or have thought in the past that, the best thing to do was to not think about it or avoid it, and that’s not how you deal with trauma,” Shoemaker said.

With the advancements in trauma therapy over the past 15 to 20 years, Shoemaker said talking in great detail about what has happened will help “break the cognitive distortions that people have.”

“They have belief systems that they’re not worthy and it was their fault and those type of things,” Shoemaker said.

What’s being done to prevent the problem

Adults Protecting Children, a nonprofit founded by Steve Collins, offers training to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. The Stewards of Children training was created by another nonprofit, Darkness to Light.

Having gone through the training herself, Vance said the real message to understand is the reality of the risks.

“It’s almost always someone the children know,” she said. “It’s usually somebody that’s trusted, whether it’s a family member or a close family friend or someone in a position of authority.

Agencies and schools in the area — including the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center, United Way and Hall County and Gainesville schools systems — have worked to get 5% of the Hall adult population trained with Stewards of Children. That goal was reached April 30.

Collins said the 5% number is based on Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” theory.

“When you reach 5% of any audience with your message, you have reached critical mass by which, with continued effort, you can begin to change cultural norms or adult behavior,” Collins said describing the theory.

In the 13-county Region 2 encompassing much of Northeast Georgia, stakeholders are fewer than 1,000 trainees from reaching the 5% tipping point across the region.

The other counties having reached the tipping point include Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Habersham, White and Dawson.

The counties of Franklin, Union, Towns and Banks are more than 80% to the 5% tipping point goal. Forsyth County and Hart County were less than 50% of the tipping point goal.

As more people get trained, Collins said there is actually an increase in child abuse reports because “people are empowered to make that report, to intervene on behalf of kids.”

Vance said schools also partner with nonprofits to instruct students about what’s appropriate and what’s not and “to feel comfortable talking about it or disclosing what they may have gone through.

What happens to the cases

The Times pulled records of all child molestation indictments since January 2014.

With more than 160 cases, there were 72 that ended in a conviction by guilty plea or verdict.

In some cases, prosecutor decided not to move forward with certain charges, though almost all of those cases ended in conviction on another charge. 

There were 21 cases where the charges were lowered, and there are 30 open cases.

Five cases ended in acquittal. Some cases were moved to the juvenile court system.

Of the trends she has seen in her office, Vance said there have been more internet-based crime and more internet-based evidence. There is “a statistical correlation between those people who collect and view child pornography and hands-on offenses or child molestation,” Debbie Garner, the agent commanding the Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, has previously told The Times.

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