‘Stand to Protect’ working to prevent child sexual abuse in Cass & Clay counties

The local organization is aiming to end what some call an invisible health crisis

FARGO, N.D. — It’s a shocking statistic that’s hard to hear.

According to the National Children’s Advocacy Center, one in 10 children will be sexually abused before turning 18.

In Cass and Clay counties, that’s more than 5,000 kids impacted by sexual abuse.

Growing up in rural Cass County, young Leslie Brunette was accompanied by fear and manipulation for years.

“I remember the feeling of just being a prisoner,” she says. “I felt so frustrated and angry and confused and afraid.”

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, more than 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser.

“I don’t know how early it started, but I do know it ended when I was 12,” says Brunette. “My father was arrested and put in prison, thanks to my older sister speaking up and sharing with a friend and just saying, ‘Enough.'”

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Brunette is not alone.

“I see kids come in that are from every socioeconomic layer of our society. It’s just not just the rich, it’s not just the poor, it’s not just the average kid,” says Red River Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Anna Frissell.

At the Red River Children’s Advocacy Center in Fargo, forensic interviews with children who’ve been abused are conducted every single day.

“We had 430 interviews last year,” she says.

Frissell says although intervention and recovery are vital, prevention is just as important.

“We have the tools now. I mean, we have the tools. We maybe didn’t have them 50 years ago, but we have them today. There’s no excuse anymore to not take steps forward.”

Taking those steps forward is the mission of a local organization seeking to end child sexual abuse in Cass and Clay counties.

“Stand to Protect grew out of an uprising by people who had been working in the field of healing children from child sexual abuse, and you know, it’s just wonderful because they said, ‘We’re going to take responsibility for prevention,'” says Stand to Protect Program Director Tami Rust.

The Stand to Protect team teaches adults steps and strategies they can take to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse before it can escalate.

That team now includes Brunette, who’s using her experiences to give courage and power to both kids and adults.

“We are giving words,” says Brunette. “We’re giving steps and strategies, the how to make this stop, and these tears are because I know that this is still happening, unfortunately, every day to kids and it doesn’t have to.”

Through a 45-minute training session, Stand to Protect helps adults see common abuser behaviors and learn 10 steps to protecting children.

“The steps we teach are easy for anyone to take,” says Rust. “Easy for anyone to understand, but they’re just not things that you maybe think about.”

She says child sexual abuse thrives in secrecy.

“A lot of people in the past have said, ‘Yes, if I see a child being sexually abused, I will report it.’ Well the reality is they’re never going to see it happening.”

That is why she says adults must learn what to look for.

“In our area, we’re fortunate to have lower crime rates. We have a very large faith community, and so, we just kind of sometimes adopt this mindset that we’re better or different from other communities, and so we really have to kind of take the blinders off and stop believing that our community is different because it really isn’t.”

“We live in a world today where abuse in the church is on the media all the time,” says Hope Lutheran Church Pastor Paul Nynas. “It’s because that mindset like, ‘This can’t happen here.’ That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church is. The church is a collection of sinners who stand before God’s grace.”

Pastor Nynas has been in ministry for 18 years.

“Did youth ministry for a long time before that, and I can’t tell you the amount of pain that is caused in a person’s life when they are abused physically or sexually as a child.”

His church is one of the organizations Stand to Protect has trained.

“What we’ve talked about with Stand to Protect is if an incident of concern ever did happen, we’re not going to sweep it under the rug or deal with it privately. We’re going to deal with it in the most just and transparent way that we possibly — we haven’t had to that, but if it ever did, I think that’s really important that churches do that.”

Hope Lutheran had policies in place before its training with Stand to Protect, like conducting criminal background checks and vetting its staff and volunteers.

But Pastor Nynas says more can always be done.

“The question I ask is how can we be okay in our community with knowing that children are abused this way? It just, we need to do everything we can to stand, to protect our kids because they can’t stand up and protect themselves.”

Brunette says, “I want my story to be shared for the purpose of filling others with hope and encouragement, and not just thinking about the trauma and sadness that can go along with talking about child sexual abuse. And I believe we will stop child sexual abuse in Cass and Clay counties, and I do believe as well that we will be a model for others.”

Stand to Protect’s goal is to train every adult in Cass and Clay counties.

The training is free.

Find more information on how to sign up for a class at: www.standtoprotect.org.

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