Inside Willow Tree Cornerstone Child Advocacy Center in Green Bay, children have shared some of their most painful experiences.
"It's almost like you can kind of see a weight is lifted off that child," explained Kristie Sickel. "Sometimes they're finally telling a secret that they've kept for years."
Sickel is the program supervisor at Willow Tree as well as a forensic interviewer. Part of her job is interviewing children who have been physically or sexually abused for police reports.
"No child's story or situation is the same," she said. "We see an array of different things."
The interviews can help police put child abusers behind bars. But for the officers who investigate physical and sexual abuse of children, the cases can be difficult.
"It's hard to grasp as an adult, seeing something like this and saying, who could do this?" said Detective Lee Kingston with Green Bay Police. "Who could do this to an innocent child?"
So far in 2017, forensic interviewers at Willow Tree have interviewed more than 400 kids from across Northeast Wisconsin. 260 of those interviews were about alleged sexual abuse.
"Child sex crimes get reported pretty much every day," said Detective Cassie Pakkala with Green Bay Police. "It's rare that we would go for a period of time without one."
Detective Pakkala works on what police call sensitive crimes. Her caseload is mainly child sexual abuse cases.
"I think we as a community as a whole need to realize that this is happening way more than what we want to realize it's happening," she explained.
Officers say these sexual crimes against children are almost never random.
"The scariest part of all of it is that it seems to be most often the perpetrator is somebody that the child knows, usually somebody the child knows well," Detective Pakkala said.
That's why experts say it's important for parents to know some of the signs of abuse. In younger children, they could be:
- Changes in behavior
- Regression in developmental state, i.e. bedwetting
- Starting to use language or words they've never used
- Difference in personality
"Parents really are the best teachers for children, and how to talk to their children about making sure they keep their body safe," said Sickel.
Sickel and police have the following advice for parents to help children who might have been abused or are at risk:
- Keep lines of communication open, especially at a young age. Make sure your children know they can talk to you about anything.
- Teach them about their body when they're young, and what's right and wrong for someone to do to their body.
- If someone makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure they know they can go to a trusted adult and will not be in trouble for telling them.
If your child is a victim, Willow Tree offers services like therapy and medical exams for children and teens.
Advocates also help families navigate the court system, even attending court hearings with them to help them in their fight against an abuser.
"We're here for the child, we're here for the family," said Megan Hackl with Willow Tree. "We're always going to be there to support them through the process when other family members might not."
In addition, officers said if there is a new adult in your child's life don't be afraid to look up that person's criminal history on the Wisconsin Sex Offender Database or the state Circuit Court Access website .
To learn more about Willow Tree and the services it offers, visit their website here . You can also call Willow Tree at (920) 436-8881.