COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Hundreds of Columbus-area children walk through the halls of the Center for Family Safety and Healing every year.
Some are suspected to be sex abuse victims in need of a medical exam, and others are there to tell police about the parental neglect they’ve encountered. While their zip codes, perpetrators, and support networks run the gamut, they all have one thing in common: Help is desperately needed.
That’s why the Center, part of Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is home to a slew of stakeholders – doctors, social workers, and law enforcement officials alike – all aimed at advocating for vulnerable kids in central Ohio, according to Melissa Hoffman, a supervisor at Franklin County Children Services.
“It’s kind of like a one-stop shop,” she said.
The year of 2022 was a tumultuous one for child sex abuse in Ohio. The story of a 10-year-old Columbus rape victim who crossed state lines for an abortion flooded the airwaves as some politicians questioned her existence. Toward the end of the year, state lawmakers passed Erin’s Law to require schools to teach about child sex abuse prevention.
And a number of central Ohio authority figures – including an athletic director at Bloom-Carroll Local Schools, a Catholic priest in Columbus, and a teacher at Upper Arlington City Schools – were accused of or indicted on child sex abuse charges.
Those headlines, however, are just the tip of the iceberg, an NBC4 review found.
Franklin County Children Services investigated more than 1,300 claims of sex crimes perpetrated against children ranging from infancy to 18 years old in 2022, Hoffman said. In Columbus, police received more than 400 reports of rape or sexual assault against kids ages 15 or younger – not including the dozens more alleging molestation and other lower-level sex offenses.
“Anytime you’re alerted to abuse, you always have to be supportive,” Columbus police Sgt. Jeffrey Skinner, head of the division’s Special Victims Bureau, said. “And you want to report it to us so that we can investigate it because you never know if someone else is being abused, too.”
While a slight majority of cases were reported to Columbus police the same day as the alleged assault, others delayed reporting by days, months, or even years. One report filed in January 2022 alleged child rape spanning back to 1978, NBC4’s investigation found.
Most victims, however, will likely never come forward with their abuse, according to Dr. Christie Jenkins, former president of the Ohio Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, who said only 30% of child victims report to authorities.
"We may never see at least 70% of people who have been sexually assaulted and molested,” Jenkins said. “They just tend to not disclose."
For victims who have the ability to disclose their abuse, law enforcement and support networks encourage them to report it immediately. If less than 72 hours have passed since an alleged rape or sexual assault occurred, victims are told to go to Nationwide Children’s Hospital or a local emergency room for examination.
Victims will find the Center for Family Safety and Healing at Nationwide, along with the following agencies that work inside its building: the Columbus Division of Police Special Victims Bureau, Franklin County Children Services, Nationwide Children’s Behavioral Health Services and the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office.
“To try to make it less traumatic for the victim – so they don’t have to tell their story over and over and over again to different people – we all sit in a room, and we can watch the interview on the television so that we’re all getting the information at one time,” Skinner said.
After an initial interview, to which victims and their families must consent, Hoffman said Franklin County Children Services coordinates with law enforcement to investigate. A typical investigation, she said, takes up to 45 days.
Both Hoffman and Skinner agreed that the most rewarding part of their job is seeing some semblance of justice for child victims and their families.
“A lot of families, they have the same end goal that we have in general: Just making sure that their kids are safe,” she said.
NBC4 shared several stories in August 2022 pertaining to child rape and sexual assault:
- Child rape: Numbers paint disturbing picture in Columbus
- Parents: How to find help after a child's sexual assault or rape
- Boys and sexual assault: What to do, who to call
- What happened to me? Kids can report sexual assault
- What happens for pregnant girls after sexual assault or rape?