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Session aims to reduce child abuse

Close your eyes and remember the most humiliating event of your life. Kristel DiGravio–Ferguson gives that instruction when she trains fellow law enforcement officers on handling child-abuse victims.

Then, she asks them to imagine that they are 7 years old and have just lived through that experience—and have to share every excruciating detail with a group of strangers.

DiGravio–Ferguson, an investigator with the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, spoke at a child-abuse prevention event in Spotsylvania County earlier this week.

She told the crowd that she and another investigator have a saying when they arrest a sexual predator, “One down, a million more to go.”

Dealing with child abuse—physical, emotional or sexual—is tough for law enforcement officers, who often have to take on roles as social worker and psychologist, DiGravio–Ferguson said.

The victims typically are traumatized by the abuse.

“Most of these perpetrators are not people these children don’t know,” she said. “These are people who are supposed to love and support them, whether it’s financially, emotionally or spiritually.”

And that increases the feelings of shame and guilt that victims feel, DiGravio–Ferguson said.

Those feelings make it hard for victims to talk about the crime, said Melanie Gardner, an art therapist with Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault.

Gardner talked about the toll sexual abuse takes on young victims, who often act out because they can’t deal with the emotions that result from the abuse.

Some can’t talk about the trauma, because they’ve been told not to talk about sex. Others don’t even have the right vocabulary. A 5-year-old, for example, doesn’t know the words to describe being raped.

Instead, young victims often exhibit new behaviors: bed-wetting, nightmares, aggression, promiscuity or cutting, Gardner said.

“These children are trying to say something,” she said. “It’s just not always verbally. They’re doing the best they can with what they have.”

Gardner and another speaker—Dianne Bachman, a licensed clinical social worker—emphasized the need to seek help for any child if there are signs of abuse.

The Virginia child-abuse prevention hotline is 800/552-7096.

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973