It was 112 degrees on a July afternoon when Phoenix police say that four boys, ages 9-14, lured an 8 year old girl into a storage room in the apartment complex where they all lived by promising her gum. There she was brutally attacked and sexually violated. All of the children are Liberian immigrants.
The police reported that the victim was a second grader, liked playing with Barbie dolls, and was still chewing the gum she was promised as they interviewed her. She said one of the boys "had sex with me".
But what started an international firestorm surrounding the story was the allegation that her father, when told of the attack, declared that he no longer wanted the girl because she had brought shame and embarrassment to the family, asking police to take her away. That they did, and she is still under the watch of Child Protective Services.
What followed were official comments from the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who sent a delegation to Phoenix to defend Liberia's honor and show support for the victim and the families of the accused. While the Phoenix community quickly assailed the father for blaming his daughter for such a vicious act, Liberian officials were equally quick to say that their country does not condone such acts and it is not part of their culture to do so. Deputy Ambassador Edwin Sele added that a language barrier caused the father's comments to be misconstrued adding that "the families are not the criminals".
Since then, the Phoenix Police have recommended that the parents be charged with felony child abuse stemming from past incidents investigated by Child Protective Services. Neglect and abuse were reported in 2007 in addition to a 2005 incident where the child was found walking alone late at night begging for food. She was four years old at the time.
Meanwhile Deputy Ambassador Sele met with the young girl and reported that she cried "bitterly" during their meeting. He said she feels that she is being punished for what happened because she is separated from her family and longs to be reunited with her parents.
The Phoenix on-line community was vocal in its condemnation, indirectly expressing relief that this failure to protect a victimized child belongs to some other culture, not our own. A week after the attack, a woman who identified herself as Irene wrote, "The barbaric reaction by the family speaks volumes about their culture. What can possibly be the value system in this culture? What is important if not to love and protect and nurture the children?"
Stephanie Orr deals with these types of cases in her position as Executive Director of CASA, the Center Against Sexual Abuse and Violence in Phoenix. She stated that, according to reports, the child was the family's black sheep, labeled a liar and a troublemaker by her parents and siblings. Her sister was seen in a CNN video saying that "she always bring trouble, she always bring trouble". Unable to control her, it was a pattern for the father to ask that someone take her off their hands. Ms. Orr spoke of the deep dysfunction of this young victim's family, of a neglected child's need for attention of any kind, of poor parenting, and the bully mentality of boys in the age range of the accused. None of these factors were referred to in the context of the culture of Liberia. She warned that those interested in the story should not be sidetracked with the cultural politics that have defined it. No, this is not a story about Liberia's troubled history and its cultural implications. This is a story about child rape and its underlying complexities.
While we bask in the safety and security of referring to this incident as a disturbing aspect of the Liberian culture, we neglect to admit that each and every night in the neighborhoods of America, little girls get raped in their own beds by a family member. And if a child can find the courage to tell, no matter if she is believed, it is still likely that she will be labeled a "liar and a troublemaker" by her own family, ultimately blamed if local agencies remove the offender from the home. And it is equally likely that the system will return the offender to the home, known as reunification.
According to the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), of the one in six women who have been victims of rape or attempted rape, fifteen percent are under twelve years old. And according to Marilyn Van Derbur, advocate for sexual abuse victims and former Miss America known for going public with her long term incest history, the most common age of sex offenders is now 14 years old.
Because the topic of child sexual abuse and violence is so shrouded in secrecy and psychological control, it remains a quiet killer of the souls and spirits of our children. One therapist specializing in sex offenders stated that our society is a candy store for molesters. We know that directly or indirectly child sexual abuse is tied to a variety of social problems such as runaways, drugs, juvenile delinquency, suicide, homelessness, prostitution, bullying, battering, depression, anxiety, rage, and more abuse. Ms. Orr believes it to be at least one of the biggest problems we face in our society today and the least acknowledged.
I believe that one day a politician will make education and awareness surrounding the epidemic problem of child sexual abuse and violence part of his platform. I believe that one day each and every school will have a specially trained staff member to advocate for victims and teach prevention. I believe that one day our government will recognize sexual abuse and violence as a national priority along with other issues such as childhood obesity, substance abuse and poverty. I hope that one day Michelle Obama will realize the power she has to make this initiative her own, not just as the First Lady, but as the mother of two young daughters. Yes, I believe that one day we will be able to hear the silent screams of all the young victims in this country who feel just as abandoned as the 8 year old Liberian child who became an American statistic in a hot storage shed on July 16th. As Irene said, what is important if not to love and protect and nurture the children?