VERMILLION, S.D. | No one wants to see children fall victim to sexual abuse, much less be victimized by it for their entire lives.
A new center at the University of South Dakota aims to marshal statewide resources to cut down on the abuse of the state's children and open discussions on the issue.
"There's a perception that it's hard or embarrassing to talk about sex abuse. We'd like to open up the conversation and make it not such a taboo subject," said Carrie G. Sanderson, who was hired in April as the first director of the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment, which was established and funded by the South Dakota Legislature and is under the umbrella of USD's School of Health Sciences.
It's believed that at least 4,000 South Dakota children experience or are exposed to sexual abuse each year. Sanderson said that number is probably low because so many children never report being abused. The center's goal is to see that number reduced while at the same time providing resources to help victims.
"It's truly providing the resources," Sanderson said of the center's task. "When child sexual abuse is uncovered, you'll know where to go next and how to support the victim and the family as a community."
The center is the result of work that began in 2014, when state legislators who kept hearing constituent requests to address child sexual abuse formed the Jolene's Law Task Force and Coalition, named for a woman who was abused as a child and as an adult began to share her story. The task force included representatives from social services, advocacy groups, law enforcement, criminal justice and state agencies and came up with a 10-year plan with six goals and 48 objectives.
To carry out those goals, the task force realized a central unit was needed to move the work forward. The Legislature in 2016 approved a $210,000 general appropriation funded through the South Dakota Board of Regents to create the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment, which the regents placed at USD with the blessing of School of Health Sciences Dean Michael Lawler, who was a member of the task force.
Sanderson was an assistant U.S. Attorney in South Dakota prosecuting violent crimes, some of them involving child maltreatment, when she heard a presentation about the task force's findings last summer. She liked what she heard and applied for the director's position.
"At that point, I thought I could do more for the children in South Dakota," she said.
It's been challenging to get the center up and running, but the task force had developed a plan that determined what work needed to be done and what tasks should be accomplished. With that blueprint in hand, Sanderson said the center has picked up where the task force left off.
"The goal of the center is to connect resources with the service industry and facilitate the work that needs to be done," she said. "We have this work plan. My job is to set a base for the work to get done."
Some first steps already have been taken, Sanderson said.
Mandatory sexual abuse reporters will receive new training on how to respond and react. Sexual abuse kits designed specifically for child sexual abuse cases have been distributed to medical providers and law enforcement agencies.
There's a push to streamline reporting and responding to reports of sexual abuse and connecting service providers to make it easier for victims and their families to access services.
And maybe the biggest task: raising public awareness. Sanderson wants South Dakotans to be able to recognize signs of abuse and feel free to step forward to report it and do something about it. A website -- www.sdcpcm.com -- was set to launch Monday. It will include statewide databases for mental health and other agencies and groups.
There will be countless more discussions, leading to more ideas, and the center eventually will branch into addressing physical and emotional abuse of children, too. As the center establishes itself and finds other funding sources for its initiatives through government agencies and grants, Sanderson said she believes it will make people more willing to discuss child sexual abuse and find solutions.
"I think people in South Dakota are ready to have this information and excited there is a group taking the lead on it," Sanderson said. "People are wanting to work together to address this issue. We're creating a vehicle for change."
A change that could benefit children and adults statewide.