MORGANTOWN — When Amber Higgins started talking about the sexual abuse she endured from ages 8-13, she didn’t think anyone believed her.
When she was 19, she finally found a police officer who did, and her abuser is in jail.
Higgins is part of an initiative trying to bring more awareness to sexual abuse.
S.H.I.E.L.D. (See, Hear, Intervene, Empower, Learn, Defend) Reporting Initiative is a Marion County initiative that will present a panel of survivors, professionals and pastors at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Trinity Assembly of God Fellowship Hall.
The goal is to further the education of sexual abuse and human trafficking in the region.
Robert Peters, former assistant prosecuting attorney in Marion County who now works in white collar crime, was a creator of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2017 in response to what he saw prosecuting sex crime cases and juvenile cases that had sexual abuse components to them.
Though some cases make it to trial, many survivors of sex crimes are traumatized after the process. Many times, the perpetrators are family members, and the survivors’ support system may be lacking after the crime.
S.H.I.E.L.D. works to fulfill the legislative mandate of age-appropriate sex abuse education in Marion County. Peters said going to the schools and teaching kids about reporting and noticing a crime is part of the work they do.
Though sex crimes and human trafficking are getting more publicity, Peters said the crimes are nothing new.
“I think part of it’s technology. Technology certainly increases the tactics that predators can use to groom children, to prey on children. That might be one thing we’re seeing in terms of an increase,” he said.
The public launch event is free and will include survivors talking about their experiences.
Higgins is one of those who will share how she survived sexual abuse.
After opening up about what happened to her, Higgins said she was made to feel nobody believed her so she couldn’t do anything about it.
At age 19, Higgins met with state police officers. She said the trooper she spoke to was one of the only people to ever look her in the eye and believe her story. Her abuser was convicted and will spend the rest of his life in prison.
“To me, it was worth it to go and tell my story multiple times and whatever discomfort that came with that because we were helping kids,” said Higgins.
A second panel at the event will discuss child safety concerns, including child abuse, human trafficking and different threats to children, such as online safety and the dark web. Peters said he hopes these discussions will educate people about the misconceptions about human trafficking.
“Something we want to emphasize what we’re seeing is not “Taken”-style human trafficking events, where people are getting yanked out from under their beds and sent off to Thailand or wherever,” he said.
Peters said the event is not about painting a dismal picture of the challenges, but the potential of communities, including the faith community, to address the issues.
Foster care is one the concerns of child abuse, given the high number of children in the system and a small number of social workers on cases. Though there is cause for alarm, Peters said getting people mobilized to solve challenges brings hope to the situation.
Higgins hopes to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. programs into Monongalia County, where he thinks it can present major opportunities.
Granville Police Chief Craig Corkrean will be a panelist on the child safety panel at the launch event.
“He clearly has a heart and a passion for these types of things. Very well educated on it, so that’s another great potential partner” Peters said of Corkrean.
Mobilizing the faith community will also be a big piece of the puzzle going forward.
“I know there are many in the faith community that certainly are willing to help, don’t know how to help, and so that’s part of what we want to do is start to bridge those gaps,” Peters said.