“I only did one wrong thing,” said the little girl, matter-of-factly.
“I was afraid and I took too long to tell.”
The Our Kids clinic staff listened patiently as the seven-year-old described years of sexual abuse by her grandfather.*
“What made you afraid?” they asked.
“I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him,” the girl replied.
The idea that a child who’s been sexually abused would want to protect their abuser is foreign to many adults; however, more than 95 percent of sexually abused children know their abuser, which means they are often important people in the child’s or family’s life.
“Most kids worry, and may even feel they’re responsible for the well-being of a person who’s loved by the family,” says Hollye Gallion, pediatric nurse practitioner and clinic director at Our Kids, a Nashville nonprofit that offers medical exams and crisis counseling to children and families affected by child sexual abuse.
“We try to help take back that guilt from the child,” she says. “We are with a family in an incredibly difficult time — a time of suffering, a time of shame — and we get to walk with them, and hopefully lead them to a different place.”
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of child sexual abuse by age 18
“Except for ‘this stuff’ grandpa is pretty cool,” said the little girl. “And he’s my mom’s dad, and I didn’t want him to get hurt, or to have to go away, so I didn’t tell and that was the one wrong thing I did.”
Gallion gently corrected her.
“I told the little girl, ‘you didn’t do any wrong things,’” she says. “I said, ‘It’s OK that you couldn’t tell right away, but you are very brave for telling now, and we are glad you are here.’”
*Identifying details of this story have been changed to protect the families served.
It’s moments like these that have kept Gallion working in pediatric medicine for 30 years, and at Our Kids specifically for the last 15.
In 1985, right out of nursing school, Gallion started caring for critically ill infants. She immediately knew she was meant to help children, and 10 years later she returned to school to become a pediatric nurse practitioner. While in graduate school at Belmont University, she decided to do a clinical rotation at Our Kids on the recommendation of a family member who’d done the same years before. From the first day, she realized she’d found something special.
“I fell in love with the philosophy of the clinic,” Gallion remembers, “the idea that when kids are able to talk about what’s happened to them, that’s the most important part. I love our patients, and after 15 years, I think it’s the best job in the world.”
65% of the 850+ children examined by Our Kids each year are 7 or younger
On a daily basis, Gallion’s job can include a lot of things:
- Performing medical exams on children of all ages, talking them through every step, and letting them talk as long as they need to once the exam is over.
- Training medical professionals, many of whom are the only medical providers in their communities to perform exams. She has trained numerous local clinicians, as well as practitioners from Minnesota, Alaska and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
- Conducting research, which currently includes working on a study with data collected from 1500 girls, the second largest sample of physical findings among victims of child sexual abuse since the early 2000s. The research aims to address the real ways kids talk about and understand their bodies, and how that affects physical findings when there are allegations of abuse.
- Speaking at national conferences, presenting findings and teaching others in the field of child sexual abuse what the team at Our Kids has learned about treatment, awareness and prevention.
- Testifying on behalf of children in court, nearby in surrounding Tennessee counties or as far away as Seoul, South Korea, where she and a co-worker traveled last year to testify in military court.
No matter the activity, Gallion says, the goal is always the same: to lessen a child’s burden — the fear, the shame, the guilt, the confusion — as much as they can.
“It can bring me to tears when I think about the opportunity we have to soften what’s happened to them, and in a small way, to impact families,” she says. “And then to take the knowledge we have and share that with other providers, and to help other nurses across the country who don’t see the numbers of children that we do — to help them feel comfortable in some way to go out and do those exams in Alaska or North Dakota — the ripple just keeps going. We keep teaching, and we keep helping.”
At Our Kids, the process starts with believing. No matter why a child or parent ends up there, that’s the one thing everyone needs.
“Sexual abuse is so different from any other form of child abuse because often there’s never any physical finding,” says Gallion, “and most kids worry. They think, ‘I’m different now because of what’s happened to me, and someone’s going to know.’ So we explain that no one will know unless they tell them.”
95% of sexually abused children know and trust their abuser
That simple reassurance helps give power back to kids — the power that was taken from them when the abuse occurred. The staff helps parents regain their sense of power, too.
“We help steer parents down the path of, ‘this was really bad, but it doesn’t define this child.’ That’s key — this is an experience that the child has had, and while it was horrific, they will have a lot of experiences in their lives, and no one thing will define them. Sorrow and loss and happiness and wonderful things happen throughout your life, so knowing that this one thing isn’t the most important thing helps put that into perspective.”
For many parents, Gallion says another difficulty comes when dealing with the notion that they should have been able to stop it.
“I don’t know that I’ve met a parent who doesn’t feel guilty about what’s happened — who doesn’t think it’s their fault,” she says. “But you can’t control for everything. We know most of the time kids are sexually abused by those who are known and loved by them, not a stranger in a park. Just because this happened, you’re not to blame; the person who did this is the person who’s at fault.”
That information is liberating for a caregiver, and that aspect of care is one thing Gallion says makes Our Kids so special. They help parents right alongside with children, performing medical evaluations one moment and offering help from licensed social workers the next. The whole encounter takes several hours, and when the family leaves, they’ve got the tools they need to move on.
“The great news is, for many children, once they tell, it’s done,” Gallion says. “Especially when kids are younger — caregivers understand the ramifications, so they put on the kids, ‘for you, this means all these things.’ But for a 4- or 5-year-old, they may tell and then they’re playing in the waiting room, picking out a toy and running down the hall. And thank goodness for that.”
“It’s not heart surgery,” Gallion says. “It’s not CPR in the emergency room, but it’s daily devotion to believing that this does not have to define a child for the rest of his or her life. And we do have the ability to make a difference.”
To learn more about Our Kids or find out how you can help, click here.