"When a trusted individual sins in a way that can ruin dozens of young lives, Christian groups and communities need to respond quickly. Here's one case study of ongoing recovery."
Excerpt from "Responding to 'The Unimaginable'" published in WORLD Magazine:
"Sioux Center, Iowa, pop. 7,500, is a tight-knit, trusting community. Originally settled by Dutch Reformed immigrants in the 19th century, the town sports well-manicured green lawns, few fences, unlocked houses and cars, and numerous churches. Church and state exist in rare harmony. Public and Christian schools share buses. The city and Dordt College, a Christian institution, share a swimming pool and athletic facility.
So Sioux Center staggered when news broke last October that Curtis Van Dam, a fifth-grade teacher at Sioux Center Christian School (SCCS), had allegedly sexually abused at least 13 of his students. SCCS is a brown-bricked K-8 school nestled in a neatly kept, tree-lined neighborhood. A bright blue-and-yellow sign in the entryway proclaims the school’s mission state- ment: 'To disciple God’s children by equipping them with a knowledge and understanding of Christ and his creation so that they can obediently serve God and others as they work and play.'
On Oct. 18, 2017, parents told school officials they believed Van Dam had sexually abused their 11-year-old son. School officials promptly suspended Van Dam, removed him from school premises, and contacted the police. They fired him the next day. On Oct. 23, police arrested Van Dam. As news spread, more families reported incidents. Police led additional charges as allegations grew—and grew. Allegations include indecent exposure, fondling, disrobing students, and other predatory acts where Van Dam sometimes targeted the same victims over weeks and months. The 40 pages of affidavits do not reveal the names or exact ages of the children.
On the evening of the arrest, shocked and tearful parents, grandparents, and teachers filled the school gym. Shawn Scholten, a mental health counselor at the Creative Living Center, a nearby counseling agency, spoke about trauma, grief, loss, and how parents could help their children. Scholten’s college-aged daughter had been in Van Dam’s class years before, though not a victim. In 30 years of counseling, Scholten had never seen such a somber crowd. She explained that the children were not the only victims: “secondary victims” included school staff , church members, and family and friends of the abused who now feared for their children’s safety and wondered whom they could trust.
The Mercy Child Advocacy Center (MCAC) in Sioux City, about 45 miles from Sioux Center, became a stop for primary victims to talk—and police to hear. Children used paper and crayons while forensic interviewers asked them questions. Investigators in a separate room watched a live-stream video feed and used a two-way radio to communicate with the interviewer.
Sexual abuse situations are isolating, so talking through the abuse helps kids heal and realize they are not alone, said MCAC manager Amy Scarmon. MCAC typically saw victims only once. She said rehashing experiences more than that may not be helpful.
Some wondered how Van Dam hid the abuse for so long. One father, Jason Lief, recalled that three years earlier his son refused to play basketball: Van Dam was the basketball coach. But Van Dam had a squeaky clean record—he is married with two young children and started teaching at SCCS after graduating from Dordt in 2004. In 2014 Dordt awarded him a Master in Education degree. His thesis argued that character development is crucial: 'Teachers need to create classroom environments that allow values to be modeled, and classroom environments where the students feel safe to model the values.'"
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