We heard 156 girls and women talk about the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of former Michigan State University sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar in a Lansing courtroom.
We heard them describe how he molested girls as young as 6 years old — masquerading his assaults as cutting-edge pelvic-floor treatments designed to relieve their pain. Sometimes, he even did it in front of their parents.
It’s hard to comprehend how Nassar managed to be so slick in his deceit that he fooled so many people for so long or how he convinced little girls that it’s ever OK to touch them in that way.
Janice Tracht, a retired clinical social worker with a background in working with children who’ve been sexually abused, likened Nassar’s deceit to a magic spell he cast on those around him, grooming them to believe that he was the utmost authority on treating these young athletes.
“This is a doctor,” said Tracht, 68, of West Bloomfield. “He’s going to take care of you. These kids come in with that trust. … They were at such a disadvantage because of this. … And that’s what makes this all the more cruel.
“These girls, they were groomed. And they were also very young, and under the guise of being a doctor and saying things like, ‘Your anatomy has to be flexible and this is the way we do it.’ He had free reign over them.
“He was very adept at grooming them to fulfill his sexual needs. They thought they were being examined.”
While the Nassar case is horrific and disturbing, it’s also a wakeup call to parents.
We can start by talking to our children early, Tracht says, beginning as young as 3 years old, that no one should ever touch them in their private areas. And if someone does — even if it’s someone they love or respect like a teacher or a family member, close friend or a doctor! — that they should shout, ‘No! Don’t touch me like that!’ And then tell their parents or other trusted adult.
Tracht stressed that people need to be sure that they don’t allow their confidence in medical professionals to blind them when standards of care are not being met.
Parents should insist on being in the room every time a medical professional touches one of our children, Tracht said. Parents can also ask for a nurse or medical assistant to be in the room, too, for any medical treatment or exam.
“The only good thing that will come from this is that parents will be more aware,” Tracht said. “When your daughter is that young and is going to be examined by a doctor, there is no reason … why a mother can’t be in the room, and a nurse, too. These girls should know that a nurse should be in the room with the doctor.”
And if you’re in the room, watching a doctor perform a treatment or procedure on your child, be present. Don’t look at your smartphone. Don’t be distracted by the artwork. Don’t allow the doctor to position his body so you can’t see what his hands are doing. Watch that doctor’s every move.
“It’s a wake-up call on so many levels here,” Tracht said.
“Doctors who are good and caring, who understand and respect human nature will always let a mother come in, will always have a medical assistant there. They are protecting the child and they are protecting themselves.”
Do your research, too.
The public can search the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs website to see whether disciplinary action has been taken against any licensed medical professional in the state through its “verify a license” site: www.michigan.gov/verifylicense.
Colin Parks, program manager for Children’s Protective Services for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged that talking to children about sexual abuse can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it’s so important to make sure that kids know they can trust their parents and that they can be open about anything that happens to them.
“One of the things that we know about children who are sexually abused is oftentimes, those things are not talked about,” he said. “It’s always very traumatizing for a child, so talking about it can be difficult. It can be embarrassing. It can be humiliating. It can be frightening.
“Those who victimize children sexually can threaten them, so that can add to a child’s unwillingness to talk about what happened. Oftentimes they will only talk about sexual abuse with someone they have faith in, someone they have an established relationship with. Information may not come out quickly.”
Sometimes, clues that a child is being molested are evident in how they behave. Always be watchful, Parks said, for signs that something might be awry, especially if your child:
— Is acting differently from the norm and seems to deviate from their ordinary personality.
— Is becoming withdrawn.
— Does not want to spend time with a caregiver or trusted adult, or seems to be unusually nervous around someone.
“The important thing is when you’re seeing those behaviors change in a child, to be very cautious about how you address it with the child,” Parks said, “and allow the child to kind of take the conversation, to allow the conversation to be very open, not ask closed-ended questions or try to lead the child.
“And just be cautious around people who are adults who want to spend an inordinate amount of time with the child. That in and of itself is very unusual, so keeping an eye on people who are spending time with your child is critical.”
Parks said children need to know that they can come to you with anything and would never get in trouble for telling.
But above all, he said, when they tell, parents must believe them and act on it.
“Always take it as though it is the complete truth,” Parks said. “Hear them, and listen to them. I think once you invalidate a child once when something has happened they are very unlikely to ever share that with you again, and they are very likely to identify you as somebody that they just can’t go to with this.”
It’s not up to a parent, friend or caregiver of a child to decide whether the claim is legitimate, said Parks.
Just report it.
“We really need to encourage both our mandated reporters and the public, if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse and neglect, they need to make the call,” he said.
“They need to not assess themselves, ‘Gosh, did abuse or neglect happen? I really don’t know. … Maybe once I find out for sure, I’ll make the call.’ People can’t wait for that. They need to report as soon as they have reasonable cause to suspect. That’s the threshold for our mandated reporters and it should be the threshold for the public, too.
“You don’t need to see a mark on a child to say, ‘OK, it’s clearly abuse, I need to call and report it.’ Just suspecting is enough.”
Michigan State has a toll-free 24-hour hotline for reports of child abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse. It’s 855-444-3911.
“If we don’t know, we can’t get involved,” said Parks.
Reports of suspected abuse — both at the state and federal level — are kept confidential. The person who is accused will never know who reported him or her to authorities, Park said.
“I think often because there’s a lot of anxiety about reporting, even somebody you don’t know, people can be anxious about the idea of reporting. But certainly when it is someone you know, people think about the repercussions of that. They’ll be like, ‘They’ll know it’s me or they’ll figure out it’s me,’ and they’ll worry about that outcome.
“But the bottom line is, if you don’t report, what is the outcome there? Could the abuse and neglect continue? Could it get worse?”
In the case of Larry Nassar, many of the women he molested did report his abuse, and yet, they said coaches, trainers and in some cases their own parents didn’t believe them, invalidated their concerns or failed to take the proper steps to trigger an investigation.
There is recourse for anyone who feels as if a complaint isn’t being taken seriously by an agency or law enforcement. Michiganders also can call the Office of Children’s Ombudsmen, which reports directly to the governor and is overseen by the governor’s office. The toll-free number is 800-642-4326.
Cathy Leary from Troy, a former nurse and mother of three daughters, said another way to ensure a complaint about a medical professional — whether it’s a nurse or doctor or social worker — is heard is to report it to directly to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
An agency spokesperson said LARA works closely with law enforcement and other agencies to ensure reports are fully investigated. If warranted, the person could lose his or her professional state license to practice and other actions can be taken to stop him or her from harming others under the guise of treatment.
All complaints to LARA must be made in writing. You can obtain instructions and a complaint form online at www.michigan.gov/bpl.
To file a complaint against a licensed nurse, go to: http://www.michigan.gov/lara
If you file a complaint with LARA, your identity will remain confidential unless you include a written release to allow your identity to be shared.
Tracht said the survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse did more in the last two weeks than tell their stories of abuse. They did a public service by educating us all about what can happen when a master manipulator is able to fool the masses.
“We need to listen to children,” Parks said. “We need to get past our own discomfort in engaging children about this topic and have this conversation about what’s OK and what’s not OK, and have that conversation regularly with them.”