Local advocates: Decades-old child rape claims illustrate important lesson for parents

This week, we learned three people have come forward claiming Mark Hoffmeister raped, molested, or violated them when they were kids in the mid-90’s and one local advocate told 4 News Now one of their stories illustrates an important lesson for parents.

One of Hoffmeister’s accusers told detectives she spoke out right after the alleged assault in 1996, only to find out her mom and friends on her gymnastics team did not believe her. She said she quickly became isolated, then turned to drugs to cope with the pain.

RELATED: Court records detail three victim accounts of alleged sex abuse by Spokane man

Sadly, according to forensic interviewer Stephanie Widhalm, that woman is likely not alone.

“Based on that response, they may not want to talk about it ever again, so the abuse could either continue to be ongoing or if there’s future victimization by somebody else, there’s gonna be more hesitancy or reluctance to want to talk about that,” Widhalm said, adding it’s not uncommon to see PTSD, substance abuse disorders, or suicidal thoughts develop over time.

Widhalm runs Spokane’s Children’s Advocacy Center, which is an extension of Partners with Families and Children, a local advocacy group. As a forensic interviewer, Widhalm interviews kids who claim they have been abused. She works to figure out exactly what has happened to them and how they’re coping.

“You know, when you think of the word ‘forensic,’ it’s really gathering the evidence. You’re gathering verbal evidence from a child in a way that they can talk about their experiences. It’s not a normal conversation like you and I are having right now — it’s very fact-based and very structured,” Widhalm said. “Oftentimes, children are abused by somebody that they know, somebody’s who’s in a position of trust so it can be very confusing for them.”

Widhalm said taking a child who claims they’ve been abused to an advocacy group or a forensic interviewer like herself is an important step in the coping process. She said it’s best to start by believing the child, all while acting as calm as you possibly can in that moment.

“Allow the child the opportunity to finish talking about their experiences and as difficult as it might be, try not to ask too many questions of the child,” Widhalm said. I know as a parent or a caregiver, we want as much information as possible, but the child has come to a place where they feel safe to tell certain parts of their experience and so that’s what they, at that point, are able to share with you.”

“Once the child’s done, say you know, ‘thank you for telling me. My job is to keep you safe and as part of my job, there’s some people that I need to call to help me with that,” she added.

The Children’s Advocacy Center works alongside local law enforcement, Child Protective Services, as well as Lutheran Community Services to help the victim and their family.

“We really have a passion for wanting to help children,” she said. We see them for who they are and the kids that are walking in through the door and not necessarily the things that have happened to them.”

There are several local resources standing by, ready to help children affected by abuse. Victims of domestic violence can also reach out to the YWCA.

Local advocates: Decades-old child rape claims illustrate important lesson for parents