The time is now to act on healing scars of sexual abuse
The following is adapted from remarks prepared for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference held in London from December 12 to 16
Bermuda is an idyllic place of natural beauty and community connectedness. We abide by a deep sense of shared responsibility and belonging. Many of us have access to educational and economic opportunities that most in the world can only dream of.
But Bermuda also has its divisions and secrets. Concealed beneath the surface is a generations-old affliction, one that results in untold emotional hardship and shattered relationships.
An affliction that is a root cause for alcoholism, depression, anxiety, social isolation, poor academic achievement, adolescent pregnancy, eating disorders, violent crime, drug abuse, sexual violence and suicide.
That root cause is childhood trauma. And perhaps the most devastating of childhood traumas is sexual abuse.
As we come to the close of Child Abuse Prevention Month, the opportunity exists to bring our affliction into the light.
According to Bermuda’s Department of Child and Family Services, from 2011 to 2014 there were 541 reported sexual abuse cases involving children between the ages of 9 and 14. For sexual assaults in any jurisdiction, the incidence of crime far exceeds the incidence of reporting.
Child sexual abuse is a persistent and pernicious public health problem. It is likely to be the most prevalent health problem that children face, with the most serious array of consequences.
“Epidemic” has been used with good intention to convey the alarming number of children affected by sexual abuse. But, by definition, an epidemic is an outbreak; a sudden and widespread occurrence of a disease or phenomenon.
Epidemics spike, but then they recede. Not so with child sexual abuse. More accurately, it is endemic in Bermuda. It is an affliction that is commonly and unremittingly found across generations in every race, religion and socioeconomic class. While there are risk factors that increase its likelihood, no segment of the population is spared.
While the endemic nature of childhood sexual abuse is true across the globe, Bermuda and many of the British Overseas Territories have a unique and particularly problematic dynamic. Childhood sexual abuse has been endured in silence for so long because we are so connected, so tightly knit. The unearned shame of children who are sexually abused has caused them to hide from those who are best able to help them because those people are connected to their abusers.
But through their advocacy work, the Scars charity is helping Bermuda to come out of hiding and is throwing off that contract of shame. Scars stands for Saving Children and Revealing Secrets, and the organisation is doing exactly that.
In October 2011, Debi Ray-Rivers, herself a product of rape and then a survivor of child sexual abuse, founded the organisation. Mrs Ray-Rivers has built an organisation that has been powerfully and swiftly embraced by the community and by youth-serving organisations island-wide. Local sporting clubs, churches, summer camps, charities and schools have mandated that adults working with children be certified in Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children, an American-based child sexual abuse prevention training, which Scars provides free of charge.
Through the work done by Scars, Bermuda has become the first country in the world to have trained more than 10 per cent of its adult population in the prevention of child sexual abuse. Because of its public awareness and public education initiatives, Scars is now a household name.
Parents are now having open, protective conversations with their children. Other organisations are establishing much needed policies and codes of conduct that divert offenders. They are altering their physical environments to keep children safe. Countless adult survivors are coming forward with their stories, not only during trainings, but also within their families where the abuse has frequently taken place. Support and healing are becoming more commonplace.
In fact, the close-knit nature of Bermuda, once a reason for secrecy and shame, is becoming our best asset in the movement to protect children. The embracing of knowledge and healing has been nothing short of phenomenal at the level of the everyday person.
However, the top-down systems have failed to do their part, sometimes deplorably so, to enact legislation and structures that would keep children safe. As of today, the commitment to our children by our people has outpaced the commitment by our governance.
Our community has been rightly outraged by the release of former police officer and convicted child sexual offender John Malcolm “Chalkie” White. As an example of the failing system at present, Mr White’s original sentence of 22 years was reduced to 18 years on appeal. Permitted to opt out of treatment and rehabilitation while imprisoned, he was still released after only 12 years.
For 12 years, this man sat in prison without intervention. The opportunity for such intervention existed for 12 years. Today, his threat to children remains unchecked. Mr White is under no obligation to receive treatment. He has no obligation to be monitored by a parole officer. He has no limitations on his access to children in schools, playgrounds, childcare facilities and other establishments frequented by children and families.
And it should be acknowledged that his victims will see Mr White roaming the community with the knowledge that he has not undergone any treatment. I wonder how that must feel?
We need our legislative body in Bermuda to do its part.
We need the judicial system to mandate rehabilitation and therapy as a condition of eventual release.
We need that rehabilitation to be provided by professionals who are fully trained and vetted to understand the manipulative attitudes and behaviours of child sex offenders. We need that rehabilitation to be enforced by the prison system.
We need convicted sex offenders to be evaluated by a panel of professionals before their release so that they may be assessed for their risk to children. We need safe zones for children that convicted sex offenders may not enter.
And we need legislation that mandates child sexual abuse prevention training for staff and volunteers in organisations that serve children.
These needs have been made known, and supporting research is readily available to our politicians. Still, our community waits for their action.
The Bermudian community is being safely ushered by Scars through a process of awareness, education and commitment to the safeguarding of children. As they receive Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children programme, everyday people have given their hearts and their consistent effort to the cause of child sexual abuse prevention. Scars is committed to providing information and training to all adults that are entrusted with children in our community.
So, what is our commitment?
It is a myth that the issue is just now coming to the forefront in Bermuda. We have been aware of it for far too long without decisive action from our legislators. On behalf of the children of Bermuda, I say now is the time to act.
•Michael Weeks is the Shadow Minister of Community, Youth and Sport, and the MP for Pembroke East Central (Constituency 16)