Åsa Kastbom: “I feel privileged working with the children we have rescued”
I’m sitting on a delayed train en route home after this year’s trip to San Diego. Every year in January, police, prosecutors, doctors, other medical professionals and social workers meet at the world’s biggest conference on child abuse. It’s an exciting and positive event where we meet to discuss how together we can make a difference. And, importantly it’s just that – collaboration – that ensures we can help these children.
We can never expect children to solve this problem, or expect them to spontaneously open up to adults and tell us what they have experienced. It is up to us to find abused children and help them out of the situation in which they find themselves.
I frequently say that I have the world’s greatest job. We are not able to stop some children from experiencing sexual abuse but I have the honour of meeting the children who we have managed to rescue from abusive situations. However, there are many more children out there who have experienced this trauma. Most of them do not receive help because we have not managed to identify them. Roughly three children in each school-class are subjected to sexual abuse during their childhood or adolescence.
I work as a Senior Doctor at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at the University Hospital in Linköping. We see approximately 140 new children and adolescents every year. Many stay with our service for many years, most visiting us at least once a week. Those who have been subjected to abuse are more likely to suffer from both psychological and physical ill-health later in life. The sooner they receive help the greater the chance to reduce this effect.
Most children and young people who are sexually abused, suffer at the hands of someone close to them. Someone who they like and trust; very often someone in the family or closely connected to the family. When abuse is uncovered families are often torn apart. Some believe the child and others the perpetrator, who in many cases denies the allegations.
Sometimes the perpetrator is someone the victim has got to know online. The anonymity that the internet provides makes it easy for the perpetrator to make contact. It also gives rise to the victim feeling a greater sense of shame that they have been made to actively participate to begin with. Anonymity makes it easier for both the perpetrator and the victim to take more risks.
Some of the children who we meet initially thought that they had met someone their own age online. Someone with whom they have entered into a relationship; starting to send pictures and talk via webcam. After a while the tone changed and became threatening. The perpetrator then showed their real face and started to threaten the child. Unfortunately, very few children are then brave enough to tell their parents. The perpetrator often uses blackmail, threatening to share the images that they already have unless the child continues to take sexual images of themselves or abuse themselves live on webcam.
For our patients the images are always a big problem. They exist on the perpetrators’ computers (often their work computer) and are often shared with people who have similar interests and in groups on the internet. Neither professionals helping children nor the children themselves have any control over these images, and this often leads to a great amount of suffering. They worry about being recognised by people they know, and this often leads to social phobias. However, these images can also be helpful as they help us to identify and find the children who have been victimised and can be saved from further abuse.
The children that I treat mostly want the same two things: for the abuse to come to an end; and for the perpetrator to apologise to them.
My hope for the future is that we will be able to help more children to achieve these wishes. If we work together it can be done. So let us: police; prosecutors; banks; healthcare; local authorities; business and schools work together to go forward.
What can you do? If you can save only one child, you have done a good deed that will last a lifetime.
Åsa A. Kastbom currently works at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University Hospital Linköping. Åsa does research in Public Health, Psychiatry and Pediatrics. Their most recent publication is ‘Differences in sexual behaviour, health, and history of child abuse among school students who had and had not engaged in sexual activity by the age of 18 years: a cross-sectional study.’