by: CHESANIE BRANTLEY/Editor-in-Chief
(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a multi-part series “Stolen Innocence” about children who have been victimized by abuse that begins in Issue #1 and will continue through Issue #6. Several staff took it upon themselves to interview, take photographs and conduct research. The results of their combined efforts follow.)
It is a small word, packed with enough meaning to make your heart drop into your stomach.
According to Prevent Child Abuse Texas (PCAT), approximately 700 children are reported (for alleged child abuse or neglect) each day in the state of Texas.
Child abuse is something that has been around for ages. It has happened behind closed doors, for some, as long as anyone can remember. But there is not just one simple way to describe it. It could be verbal, physical, emotional, mental and rape. There are organizations across the country to help children who are experiencing the trauma abuse causes, including Prevent Child Abuse Texas.
As with many other public health issues, there is a disconnect between the magnitude and severity of the problem and the response in dealing with it, according to PCAT.
According to PCAT, a child dies from abuse in Texas every 38 hours. It is also as common as children with asthma, 300 times more likely than getting meningitis and 6,000 times more likely than a child dying from influenza.
According to PCAT, this exists because child abuse is complex, requiring a complex solution, and the “disease” of child abuse comes on slowly, requiring a long-term solution. It impacts many lives, but is also often perceived to happen to “someone else.”
For many children who have been victimized, there are extensive medical and mental health problems that they have to face. According to PCAT, children who are victims of abuse do more poorly in school than other students, are more likely to become violent as teens and adults, and die at a younger age. Child abuse is a serious problem that affects the child and their families in a very complex and deep way. There are hundreds of children who have had to face abuse and are dealing with the physical and psychological aftermath.
According to PCAT, child abuse continues to put a burden on the individual, the family, the community and the state long after the abuse has occurred.
Mike Sawicki, a personal injury attorney and president of Sawicki Law in Dallas, represents individuals and families who have been victims of workplace injuries, personal injuries and sexual assault.
“I have a varied practice,” said Sawicki. “I started off my career handling aircraft crash cases, helicopters, jetliners, things like that. I still do that work from time to time. Then I’ve handled a wide variety of injury cases, some involving 18-wheeler truck wrecks, to medical malpractice claims.”
According to Sawicki, he handled his first sexual assault case when two women came to him after they had been raped in a hospital setting. He began writing about those issues after the case was over.
“Without ever really intending to, I just kept getting calls from people who had either been sexually assaulted or raped,” said Sawicki. “So, that’s become a subspecialty, if you will.”
Families with small children all the way up to elderly people come to Sawicki for representation in their cases. But one case he handled a year ago has stuck with him.
“The most recent is always the most emotional, just because you’re going through it with the client,” Sawicki said. “One that really stuck in me was a case involving a number of boys that were sexually assaulted by a summer camp counselor at a camp outside of Kerrville, Texas.”
Sawicki represented about six boys, but there was probably a total of around 10 boys between the ages of 5 and 6, who were abused. They were assaulted by an Australian man who was hired for the counseling job by a company in Connecticut. Sawicki travelled across the country to Connecticut, as well as across the world to Australia, while he worked on this case. He said this case stuck with him because he had his own son at home who was the same age as the boys he was representing, and as his clients were growing up, so was his son.
“I could see their faces every time I looked at my son and think what a horrible impact it would have had, how I would have felt,” recalls Sawicki, “because my little guy was basically the same age they were at the time I was going through it.”
Although this case has stuck with Sawicki a few years, he says the most emotional cases are those that are the most recent. They are fresh on his and the client’s minds as they are going through them together. Sawicki said that right now he is representing a preteen who was sexually assaulted by her teacher.
“They (abuse cases) can be very difficult to handle, because they become emotional, because you become involved with (them),” said Sawicki. “You unfortunately get to see the effect of being raped or sexually assaulted right up close.”
According to Sawicki, there are some simple steps to be taken that could help lower the number of child victims being assaulted.
“A lot of times, it’s just doing the basic common sense things, like checking references, requiring references and in this day and age with Google and other search engines readily available, making an effort to check for potential employees backgrounds on those types of things,” said Sawicki.
He also said that it is amazing what they can find on the Internet, and use in his cases, just by putting an individual’s name in a search engine that was ignored earlier.
Sawicki said that one of the hardest parts of representing victimized children is remembering to stop and take care of them through the case, instead of just being their lawyer. He said that he has had people who are afraid to go outside or terrified of strangers to the point that it is debilitating.
“There’s an old joke about attorney and counselor,” said Sawicki. “I spend a lot of time doing the counseling part, even though I’m not a psychiatrist. It just comes with the job.”
Sawicki said that he gets calls from the victims or their families about things he cannot do anything about, but they are concerning enough that they just need a voice to listen to. He said that there are many consequences that follow being sexually assaulted, including anger issues, depression and substance abuse. The effects of the abuse are long lasting in the individuals, says Sawicki.