EPISODE 4: WEB OF PROTECTION - What advocacy aims to do for child abuse victim


This is our second episode in the series on Child Sexual Abuse where we talk to Ms. Deb Rosen, who is the Executive Director of Bivona Child Advocacy Center in Rochester, NY. We talk about what Bivona does, how to handle when a child discloses the abuse and dispel some myths about child sexual abuse. Advocacy organizations like Bivona is crucial to victims of child abuse especially child sexual abuse.

Read the full transcript below

“What we know is that minimally one in 10 Children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

One in 10, That’s 10% of our children who are sexually abused. That’s a large number when you think about it. What are we doing about it? How do we halt this? How do we help these victims? This is a conversation everyone should listen to. 


[Deepthi] Welcome to the Halt, Help, Heal from domestic violence podcast. This podcast is brought to you by Saathi of Rochester, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of domestic violence who are from South Asia. 

[Deepthi] This is the second episode in our series on child sexual violence and I talked to Deb Rosen about what and how advocacy groups help the victims of child sexual violence. 

[Deepthi] Today I have the pleasure of talking to Ms Deb Rosen, the executive director of Bivona Child advocacy center here in Rochester, New York. Ms.Rosen has a long history in the social work arena and has been the executive director of Bivona Child advocacy Center for four years now, which is at the time of this recording. 

[Deepthi] So Deb thank you for being here today.

[Deb Rosen] Thank you so much for having me. I am, I am really honored that you asked me and it’s really my pleasure to be. 

[Deepthi] It’s our pleasure too. So I want to get into what actually child advocacy is and what does before an idea what aspects offenders we want to help the child abuse victim and what is the primary approach you have in dealing with child trauma? 

[Deb Rosen] Sure. So Bivona Child advocacy center is a nonprofit organization located in the city of Rochester, um, for those of you that are familiar with Rochester, we’re right in the heart of the south wedge neighborhood of Rochester, and we provide services to children who have experienced physical and sexual abuse and other very serious traumas. A child advocacy center is a place where children can go for their abuse investigation and for follow up mental health services. So the really unique thing about a child advocacy center is that in one location we have all of the different disciplines that participate in child abuse investigation that includes child protective services, law enforcement, prosecution, pediatric medicine, victim advocacy etcetera, etcetera. All of the people who contribute, do so and work very closely together. And the reason for that is so that children only need to go to one place to tell their story of trauma and to receive the services that they really need. So that’s the very unique aspect about a child advocacy center. Child advocacy centres exist all across the country and in fact in many different forms all across the world. So Bivona is in of itself is not unique here and here in New York state, we have over 40 child advocacy centers. 

[Deepthi]  So how has the child advocacy center been handling any victims during the pandemic? 

[Deb Rosen] Well, that’s a great question. So we have been open every day of the pandemic. We did not close down operations at all. Um, we did see a significant reduction in the number of kids that were coming to us, but only for a couple of months. Kids began coming back and receiving services in the spring of 2020 And overall our, our sort of caseload was only reduced by about 15% over the course of the year. We did see the numbers of referrals to the organization increase in the summer of 2020 beyond levels that we typically experience And please keep in mind that in any given year, Bivona serves about 2000 Children, About 2000 children who have experienced physical and sexual abuse in Monroe County come through our doors every year. And last year was no exception. 

[Deepthi] Wow, that’s a large number and I wasn’t expecting that large a number, especially in Monroe County. I’m glad that there is a center where children can get referred to, but I’m sad that there are these cases. 

[Deb Rosen] Yes, of course, of course. 

[Deepthi] So my question then is how does a child get referred to your services? Does a parent just call you or is it more social services, the school or maybe the courts or the legal system? Do they refer your organization as a place for help and for healing?

[Deb Rosen] Yes. Well, so the answer to your question is really that we get referrals from many, many different sources, but the primary source of our referrals comes from child protective services and from law enforcement who bring these cases of child sexual and physical abuse to Bivona, we also get phone calls from parents that are concerned for their children. We get many phone calls from schools and school districts who are concerned about the children that they see and they need help getting connected to child protective services or law enforcement. We get referrals from medical professionals, both primary care pediatricians, emergency room doctors, etcetera, etcetera. Our referral base is really very broad. It doesn’t mean that they always have to get referred to your service from some other organization. 

[Deepthi] As you’re saying, the parent can call too. So you’re open and able to handle those calls and answer their questions. 

[Deb Rosen] Yes, Absolutely. And we can connect if somebody needs to be connected to child protective services and or law enforcement, we will make that connection for them and be a part of helping them navigate that process with that. 

[Deepthi] That’s a wonderful two way connection, I would say. So In our previous episode, I interviewed a child sexual abuse survivor and something she said, it just stayed with me and I’m paraphrasing here. She said, “people ask me why I didn’t tell someone about it. People don’t realize how hard it is to tell someone and even how confused I was about what was happening to me.” So for me was something that I didn’t realize being on the other side of it. So what are the other challenges a child faces communicating abuse about abuse or even knowing that it was sexual abuse? 

[Deb Rosen] Yeah, those are two of the most important questions you can possibly ask about child abuse and there are a myriad of reasons that children do not disclose abuse. One of them being that they don’t recognize it as abuse. And let me let me hold on to that thought and get back to that in a few minutes. Let me first talk about all of the obstacles the children experience in in disclosing their abuse. The most important thing for people for your listeners to get their their heads around is that children are almost always abused by someone who they know very well, generally speaking in the vast majority of cases, children are not abused by strangers. And so the abuse that they need to talk about is abuse that is committed by people who they know and they trust by family members, by community members, by friends. And it’s very difficult for children to overcome their sense of loyalty, their sense of obligation and their dependence on some of the people who abuse them. So that is first and foremost the most difficult obstacle. Children from a very, very young age also fear that they will not be believed. And in fact, we know that many, many children are not believed when they disclose their abuse. That is a very common problem, in child abuse cases. So, children have reason to feel that way. So what we know is that only about one in 10 children who has experienced sexual abuse will tell somebody about it during their childhood. The vast majority of people who survived child abuse don’t tell anybody about it until their adulthood and some of them never tell anybody about it at all. 

[Deepthi] Yeah. So is there a way as an adult or a parent or a guardian can react when a child you said some kids are not believed. How do you react when a child discloses child abuse or even how does an adult probe and say, I see something going on? I need to approach this child and see if there is some reason for my suspicion. How how does how does it adopt to this? What advise or what tips do you have for some adults who are kind of in this watching this are have a child approached them and disclose about sexual abuse? 

[Deb Rosen] Yeah, Well let me say that. Let me talk about what would be ideal. And then let me also talk about what is what is probably more realistic. So what would be ideal and what we are working towards here at Bivona is for children and the adults that surround them, their parents, their community members, their teachers. We are hoping that children and those adults will learn to speak a common language about safety and abuse. And we really hope to be educating children about what abuse really is, what is okay behavior and what is not OK behavior, what is safe and what is not safe. And once children and adults have a common understanding about that, it is much, much easier for children to disclose their their abuse and for adults to be able to hear them and to believe them. What’s most important to note is that children, it is extremely rare that children make up a story about abuse. It is it is simply not true. There have been multiple studies about this. And generally speaking children do not lie or make up stories about abuse. So adults need to be aware of that fact and need to be prepared to hear and believe what a child has to say. That does not mean that the adults should ask a million questions and and perform a many interview of the child. They should simply listen. They should ask extremely gentle, general questions like tell me more about that or tell me all about that. And then they should be prepared to report what they have heard to professionals who can do a thorough interview of the child. Parents should not be interviewing children. Teachers should not be interviewing children. Child protective services and law enforcement professionals should be interviewing children about their abuse. 

[Deepthi] So you’re advice if you hear about something, is get some information and then report. And one of the things I wanted to bring about is how the adult reacts. Does the adult panic or do they kind of go, “oh my God, this is going to be such a big disaster” and they are trying to not disclose that and make it a bigger thing. So how would how would you advise parents who is it that scenario? Let’s say it’s it’s an uncle who is abusing. And so there are all these family dynamics, right? 

[Deb Rosen] I mean, this is this is what is so very, very difficult about the reality of child abuse. The reality of child abuse is that it almost always includes people who the family with a child and the family know very well. So it is extremely important that whoever a child discloses to is able to contain their emotions and is able to contain their response so that they don’t become extremely upset or confront a child about what they’re hearing. Children need real stability and real calm when they give that information to an adult. And that is difficult. That is very difficult. 

[Deepthi] I know as a child who’s going through this might say it may be my fault and if I do something I might get into more trouble. So your advice just being calm and it’s very, very important and having that in our mind, even if it’s not our own child, but being aware, it’s very important. 

[Deb Rosen] It’s very important that children hear from an adult, that this is not their fault. That’s one of the most important lessons that children need to hear about child abuse, that it’s not their fault. Psychologically it is very difficult for children to separate themselves from the fault. And children very often do see themselves as fault as being at fault. And so it’s very important that they hear those words from every adult that works with them, including their including and most importantly their own family members.

[Deepthi] We have been talking about all these misconceptions. I want to go through a few of them because we in general as a community and as just public, we believe in things about child abuse that may not be true or we may have some misinformation. And so I want to see if we can bust some of these myths. So the first one I have is a child is most likely abused by a stranger. We see it in the media, watch it in movies, is that a myth or a reality. 

[Deb Rosen] Oh, absolutely. children, what, what I’ve, what I have said consistently to, to your listeners today is that children are generally abused by people who they know well and who they trust. Well over 90% of child abuse is perpetrated by people who know the child well and so the whole notion of stranger danger is, is truly a myth. And while there are some rare and extraordinarily upsetting cases of strangers actually assaulting children, what is much more common as the children are assaulted by people who they know very well. 

[Deepthi] Thank you for clearing that as a myth and I think we are all in this denial that, oh, it’s only a stranger. 

[Deepthi] So the second one is, this is something that I wanted really talk about this. Child abuse is always perpetrated by adults. Is this a myth or a reality? 

[Deb Rosen] Yes, that is a myth. That is a myth. So, while a significant proportion of child abuse is committed by adults, about 25% of the cases that we see here at Bivona are cases in which one young person, a person under the age of 18 has sexually assaulted another young person. And we often refer to youth who commit these acts as youth with problems sexual behaviors. We work very hard not to criminalize that behavior and instead to recognize it as a, disordered behavior, of, of childhood and to provide appropriate care. But unfortunately it is, it is the case that children are with, with regularity assaulted by other children. 

[Deepthi] Yeah, that was something that I did not realize till I saw the data that it was such a large number. I was assuming it was a minor case. 

[Deepthi] So the next one, I hope we have some data to back this up. Child sexual abuse is rare. 

[Deb Rosen] Yes. Child sexual abuse is not rare. What what we know is that minimally one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. There are some population studies of certain demographics of children that put that number as as high as one in four for girls and one in eight for boys. So child abuse is very common. Child sexual abuse also stretches across ethnic, racial religious geographic barriers. It is unfortunately a social phenomenon that happens really within every culture and every population of people in this country and, and I would argue across the world except in very rare cultures. So I think, I think what is unfortunately true is that people believe that child sexual abuse is very rare. And so when they hear about it, they are, they don’t believe it because they think that it’s so rare. I think that if adults really came to understand how common sexual abuse actually is, they would be much more likely to take seriously any concerns they have about a child being abused and they would be much more likely to believe a child who discloses abuse to them. 

[Deepthi] So in that one in 10 number of child being a victim of abuse, is it just the ones that are disclosed? Or does it include the ones that as you were alluding to before; there are people who never, never ever, talk about it in their childhood… 

[Deb Rosen] Right. Certainly, that number does not include those people who are who their abuses never known. So to say one in 10, what we know is. That that’s why I always say minimally one in 10, because the reality is is that that number is probably far far greater. 

[Deepthi] Yeah, that is sad to hear again. There are so many abuse (victims) and the consequences of trauma feel very heavy and negative. Are there some positive outcomes you observed that could help any of our listeners? I feel like there is some hope and good future for those victims and survivors. I don’t want to (end with a negative note), it is a very negative subject, but I want to give some positive (statements). 

[Deb Rosen] Absolutely. There is, there is plenty of good news here. What we know is that when children receive the right kind of help at the right time, the likelihood of them going on to lead happy, healthy lives is very high. We do know that children who do not receive the right kind of response and treatment may go on to have very difficult outcomes. But increasingly, our cultures are becoming aware of child sexual abuse and it is becoming easier for children to get the help they need and the services they need. I also really want to stress the importance of prevention. So the best news of all is that Bivona Child advocacy Center and many other organizations across the country are working very hard to provide education to children and to adults, which will help prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place, Bivona is going to be working with 16 different school districts this coming year, just here in Monroe County providing education about abuse awareness and prevention, were providing that education to children as young as Kindergarten and all the way up through 12th grade. And we’re providing that education to the teachers and administrators of the schools that these children attend and to their parents as well. So we are very hopeful that with enough sustained attention and resources, we can really help this community turn a corner and really help to prevent child sexual abuse. 

[Deepthi] So you’re, you’re, that’s very good to hear that, there’s a consistent effort to prevent this from happening. You also mentioned about community being, like community leaders also being sometimes the abusers. So how do we involve the community there’s just we want to do anything with involving them, not just parents and schools in individuals.

[Deb Rosen] Yes, very, very much so. So your your observation is a very important one, which is that it’s very important that leaders of organizations and communities be aware of these issues and become a part of the solution when we work with schools, we always start by working with the school administrators with school superintendents and principals and directors of student curricula and the folks who make decisions for that school district. It is vitally important that they believe and understand the importance of the prevention education and that they are willing to play a role in it. And we’ve been very, very pleased with the response that we’ve gotten from organizational leaders.

[Deepthi] Wow, that’s wonderful. Let’s that’s help build this wall of protection around kids including what we wanna does so that I never want to hear again where I said there were 2000 cases that we had to deal with this year. 

[Deb Rosen] Yes, a wall of protection is a is a wonderful way to look at it and and absolutely that is what we hope to do. I I also talk about it being a blanket of protection or a web of protection because we know that in order to keep children safe there are many, many different threads and facets that need to come together to to really surround a childhood protection. So it’s never just a single conversation or a single person or a single organization and let me be the first to say that Bivona cannot do it all. Bivona cannot single handedly protect this community’s children. We work with multiple partners. We have a partnership with 23 different agencies that are involved in this work. We have well over 100 team members that are a part of this work and it’s our partnerships with schools with school districts, with youth serving organizations with doctors et cetera. That is really going to come together to keep children safe 

[Deepthi] And as we don’t want any leaks in that, that’s why I want to make sure that this is a positive thing. 

[Deepthi] So thank you for sharing your thoughts and expert opinions about child abuse today with us. We talked about what Bivona does, how to handle when a child discloses the abuse and we tried to bust some myths about child sexual abuse. There are many more. Do you have any final thoughts or comments to our listeners today? 

[Deb Rosen] Only that I so appreciate your interest in this topic. What’s really important is that adults be aware and adults be educated about how common child sexual abuse is and how significant a problem it is. Um, so thank you for listening and thank you for taking this to harden carrying this message forward to your circles of friends and family. Thank you. 

[Deepthi] I’m hoping we have something like where do you have an earthquake drill? We have the kids trained in doing this. We have everybody in the community trained to watch out to prevent child sexual abuse or any child abuse. That is my hope. 

[Deb Rosen] Thank you. 

[Deepthi] This has been the Halt, Help, Heal from domestic violence podcast. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please be sure to leave a review on ITunes or any other podcast platform you’re listening to this episode on. If you want to know more about the topics we discussed today, visit saathiofrochester. org/ podcast where you will find the show notes.