Katie McQuaid's Scene in Manchester: System worked for one victim of child sexual abuse
Jessica Bergeron never intended to reveal that she had been sexually molested as a child. But when she was a teenager, a former boyfriend told some adults in her life, and she was persuaded to report the crime to police.
The experience was awkward and embarrassing. Reporting it meant describing every detail of the incident — how, where, what — and the Manchester police officer assigned to take her report was not much older than she was.
“He was just as embarrassed as I was,” she remembered of the 2002 interview about the abuse by a relative. Before he could be arrested or prosecuted, his family moved out of New Hampshire, and Jessica decided not to pursue charges. She was in college and had just met the man who would eventually become her husband. Besides, the process so far had been difficult and uncomfortable. She wasn’t given any hope by investigators that it would be any easier going forward.
“I just wanted to move on with my life,” she said.
Jessica’s story highlights how far New Hampshire has come in caring for victims of sexual abuse. Today, child victims of sexual abuse are no longer interviewed at police stations. Instead, they are brought to one of 11 Child Advocacy Centers across the state. Each center works to make the process of reporting sexual abuse easier for the victim and the family.
“We provide the forensic interview of the child abuse cases,” explained Joy Barrett, Executive Director of the Child Advocacy Center of Hillsborough County. The centers also do interviews with children who have experienced felony-level physical abuse or have witnessed a violent crime.
The Hillsborough County Child Advocacy Center is a nonprofit that operates locations in Nashua and Manchester. It has about six full-time staff members, and performs between 500 and 600 interviews a year. On Saturday, April 9, the center will hold its 10th annual fundraising gala at Manchester Country Club. Jessica’s story will be one of several shared at the event, to highlight the differences child advocacy centers have made in the reporting and prosecution of sexual abuse cases.
The gala — called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — includes dinner, dancing and an auction. Tickets are $150 per person, and can be purchased at www.cac-nh.org/gala.
The number of forensic interviews performed by the Hillsborough County Child Advocacy Center is on the rise, with a 20 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. Barrett believes that adults are becoming more alert and better trained at spotting sexual abuse in children. The center also offers programs for parents, teachers, and other groups to “promote awareness of child abuse and how to recognize, react responsibly, and prevent it.”
“We’re getting more sophisticated with people identifying abuse and taking action,” she said.
The forensic interviewers at the Hillsborough County Child Advocacy Center are trained in child development and forensic interviewing techniques to create a non-threatening atmosphere where victims feel safe and comfortable telling their story to a trusted adult.
During the interviews, a team involved in the case — law enforcement, prosecutors, child protective service representatives , victim/witness advocates, and medical and mental health professionals — watches on closed-circuit TV and can relay additional questions to the interviewer through an earpiece.
Crucial information is gathered during the interview, which can be used during the investigative process. Victims are also connected with local mental health providers and crisis center agencies for the support they will need going forward.
Better lives for victims
The National Children’s Alliance reports that using Child Advocacy Centers results in a 40 percent increase in successful prosecution rates.
And the extra support for the victim and families can mean a better future for the victims.
I met Jessica through church in 2009, and would never have guessed she was a victim of sexual abuse. She is happily married, has a successful career in financial sales, and is the mother of three beautiful children. But many sexual abuse victims do not have the successful outcome that Jessica has had.
They drop out of school, are more likely to develop substance abuse and behavioral issues, experience depression, and more.
Before Child Advocacy Centers were in place, victims had to be interviewed multiple times, experiencing the trauma of retelling their story repeatedly to everyone involved in the case. It was something Jessica just didn’t want to do at age 19.
But things were different when Jessica turned 30. She was pregnant with her second child, and had learned her abuser, Mark Niedzwiecki, had started a relationship with a woman who had young girls. She realized that by not pursuing charges, she might be allowing other children to be victimized. She called police and asked them to reopen her case.
This time, in 2011, the process was much different. She was too old to be interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center, but a special unit had been created for sexual assault victims in the Manchester Police Department, and her interviews were not as awkward and embarrassing as they had been nearly a decade earlier.
She was also assigned a victim advocate by the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office. Her advocate, Kim Fillmore, said Niedzwiecki was ultimately charged with 19 counts of sexual assault. On March 11, 2013, he pled guilty to two counts of patterned aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to five to 20 years at the New Hampshire State Prison.
Jessica is glad she pursued her case, and she wants other victims to know it’s not too late to come forward. In New Hampshire, child victims of sexual abuse can pursue charges up to 22 years after their 18th birthday.
“I was really impressed with Hillsborough County,” she said. “Everyone says the justice system doesn’t work, but in my case it worked. It worked beautifully.”
Barrett wants people to be aware that under New Hampshire law, when a person suspects physical or sexual abuse of a child, they are required to report that suspicion to the Division for Children, Youth and Families.
A new awareness campaign called Know & Tell will be launched next month as part of Child Abuse Prevention Month. For more information on how to spot signs of abuse, visit cac-nh.org.
NH365.Org event of the week
Barry Manilow will bring his “One Last Time!” tour to the Verizon Wireless Arena tomorrow, March 15. Keep an eye out for members of The Manchester Choral Society, who have been asked to provide back up for Manilow in three of his songs.
The show starts at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are between $19.75 and $169.75. For more information on other shows coming up at the Verizon Wireless Arena, visit www.NH365.org.
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