A thank-you note from a recipient of help from River Bridge Regional Center. Courtesy photo

Children treated for sexual abuse at the River Bridge Regional Center (RBRC) in Glenwood Springs surpassed 250 in 2021. That’s ten times more kids than were seen by the child advocacy organization in 2020 and about three times the number treated when RBRC opened its doors in 2007, according to Executive Director Blythe Chapman.

“There is no rhyme or reason for child sexual abuse,” says Chapman. “It doesn’t rise or fall during holidays or because of the pandemic.” Nor is this rise in RBRC cases proof that sexual abuse of children, is increasing.

What these numbers do indicate, however, is that abusive situations are being reported more often and children can get help sooner to recover from sexual as well as physical maltreatment. River Bridge has grown to eight full-time specialists, including therapists and a part-time nurse, yet is still under-staffed, says Chapman. 

About 75% of the children in treatment are girls but Chapman suspects the number of abused boys is higher than reported. “Boys are taught to be strong, which inhibits their ability to come forward,” she says. “It’s the children we don’t see that keep me up at night,” she says.

“The overall drastic increase in our services is because more partners recognize how beneficial our services are,” says Chapman. Those partners include law enforcement and child protective agencies in Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties that contact RBRC when they suspect sexual abuse. 

Chapman emphasizes that referrals for treatment of children and their impacted families must be made by these authorities. Schools and concerned individuals can report their suspicions to them. In addition to providing mental health services to children and their trusted caregivers, RBRC cooperates with legal investigations into an alleged perpetrator, which can lead to the person’s removal from the child’s home and life. “For parents to emphasize ‘stranger danger’ is completely ineffective,” says Meghan Hurley Backofen, RBRC’s sexual abuse treatment provider and mental health coordinator for Garfield County. 

“After treating about 4,000 kids I can count on less than two hands the number of times the abuser was a person the child didn’t know,” she says. Suspected perpetrators are never permitted on RBRC premises.

While community-based child advocacy centers like RBRC work with the law to protect their young clients, “we tell families that convictions are not necessary for their healing,” Executive Director Chapman says. Proper treatment is.

Without it, childhood onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) results in adverse “symptom clusters” that can linger or worsen in adulthood, says Backofen. Children continue to experience flashbacks, emotional numbness and hyper-vigilance. A mental health diagnosis, says Backofen, “comes from symptoms, not causes,” and a bipolar or borderline personality disorder might be determined to explain a child’s behavioral difficulties when sexual abuse is the underlying cause.

Until about 20 years ago, mental health professionals were trained to do what a child did if sexual abuse might be a possibility; “use avoidance,” says Backofen. 

“Society’s discomfort with acknowledging the abuse of children bled into the mental health field. Mental health providers took a non-directive approach, which meant that they wouldn’t force a child to talk about something they didn’t want to talk about,” says Backofen. “There was no evidence that not talking about a problem was helping the child get better.”

The journey back from a child’s PTSD begins in a cozy cottage on the RBRC premises furnished with teddy bears, toys, comfy sofas and chairs. The treatment regimen is evidence-based, trauma-focused therapy, which means that children are given tests that measure PTSD levels before and after treatment. 

In as many sessions as required, the therapist allows the child to talk fully about their experience, keeping the conversation neutral so as not to influence what the child says. Backofen says 34 kids under her care successfully completed treatment last year. Apart from the before and after measured PTSD levels, young clients also acknowledge that they feel better. Some have written thank-you notes to RBRC staff for helping them move on. “That difficult things happen to people is inevitable,” says Backofen. “Even children can be given the tools they need to cope.” The best thing a parent can do is “get educated” and talk to their children about how nobody should touch their body in a way that confuses them, says Backofen. Podcasts and books on talking to children about inappropriate physical contact are available through RBRC. “Parents need to say something like,  ‘I want you to know that if a kid or adult ever touches you, or does something weird, you can tell me.”

24-hour Colorado Child Abuse Hotline in English and Spanish: 1-844-264-5437 (1-844-CO4KIDS)