‘A place of hope:’ GR center helps child sexual abuse victims

kent county children's assessment center
Children's Prevention Program Manager Tanya Muehlbauer speaks to 24 Hour News 8 on April 4, 2017.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s something no one wants to talk about: sexual abuse against children. But for nearly 25 years, Kent County’s Children’s Assessment Center has been doing just that.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. As part of that, the center opened its doors to 24 Hour News 8 on Tuesday to show how it helps solve and prevent crimes against children and, just as importantly, provides healing.

“The kids are happy to be here and I think, for myself, that’s one of the most inspirational things about working here is that this is a place of hope,” Amy Herring, the development director for the center, said.

The Children’s Assessment Center is in an unassuming building in the 900 block of Michigan Street NE. From the outside, there’s no clue to the intense work that goes on inside.

Every year, between 900 and 1,000 children — half of whom are younger than age 6 — are referred to the center by police after a report of sexual abuse. The children are sometimes victims of an adult and sometimes of another child. Sometimes, they themselves have perpetrated abuse against another child.

“We mostly see children who are survivors of sexual abuse within our center. These children have been abused by adults and adolescents and cope with their abuse in many different ways. We also see children who are struggling with exposure to pornography as well,” Lead Therapist Ashley Jansma said.

Most often, the abuser is not some shadow-shrouded stranger, but a trusted adult.

“A child feels like what’s happening may not be wrong because this is an adult they look up to,” Jansma said.

With the advent of the internet, a whole army of abusers has a way to groom and attack children from miles away.

“It’s a faceless crime in a lot of ways, too. The child doesn’t necessarily feel victimized or that what they’re doing is wrong or what’s happening is wrong because they’re so separated from it,” Jansma said.

But while the stories they hear will break your heart, the workers at the center see healing.

“I get to see children heal, so child sexual abuse is not a scary thing for me to talk about because I know that child is going to come out stronger and more empowered than they ever were before,” Jansma said. “It’s my job to make sure they’re educated on what healthy relationships look like so they can make informed and smart decisions moving forward.”

“There’s every effort made to meet the child at their level and to give them back some of their own personal power that has been taken away,” Herring said.

The center has also started programs in 17 school districts and some private and charter schools. Their curriculum teaches kids how to identify a problem and seek help.

“If we’ve done our job well, they’ve had those tools so they can pull from that information and say, ‘You know what, something’s not right here. I’m going to talk to a safe adult, a grown-up who can help me figure this out,’” said Tanya Muehlbauer, the Children’s Prevention Program coordinator.

The center combines forensic investigation, medicine and therapy — all at no cost to the child’s family and no matter how long it takes. Funding comes from taxpayer dollars, grants and donations. The coordinated, one-stop approach is estimated to save the county $1,200 per case.