COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Of the 172 girls who reported to Columbus police that they were raped or sexually assaulted during the first half of 2022, 14 did so between 43 and 270 days after they say it happened.

Although it is unknown how many of those 14 girls became pregnant as a result of being assaulted, there has already been one high-profile case in Ohio of a 10-year-old who left the state for an abortion in the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Ohio was allowed to reenact a fetal heartbeat law that provides no exception for rape or incest.

In Ohio, abortion is generally illegal once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is roughly 43 days after fertilization. And 270 days is nine months, a full-term pregnancy.

And a bill introduced at the Ohio Statehouse would restrict abortion even more, offering legal protection to unborn individuals beginning at conception. The bill has yet to be debated, and the legislature remains in its summer recess. It is unlikely to be considered before the November election.

“The community underestimates the enormity and impact that kids face in terms of sexual abuse,” said Dr. Kristin Crichton, a child abuse pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital at the Center for Family Safety and Healing.

NBC4 spoke with Crichton about children’s health around pregnancy and what kinds of supports exist to care for pregnant children and teens. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

NBC4: What are some of the reasons someone might not tell or might not know they are pregnant?

Crichton: Lots of teenagers have kind of abnormal periods. To know that they’ve missed a period requires some regularity and monitoring of their body, which teenagers aren’t necessarily great at. Due to the unpredictable nature, they might not realize that their period is late or missed. Also, they may not realize that they’ve necessarily engaged in an act whether consensual or nonconsensual that could result in pregnancy. If it’s not on their radar that they need to be aware, to think about, being pregnant, they may not realize that they’re pregnant.

In terms of why they may not want to tell that they’re pregnant, certainly even in consensual sexual acts, kids may be afraid of getting in trouble. And in non-consensual sexual acts, there may have been force or coercion involved. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed, or they may have been threatened by the perpetrator that if they do tell, other harm could come to them or their family, and so then they’re scared to get in trouble with their parents or family. They’re scared of the stigma around being a teen who’s pregnant, and then they’re scared if threats have been made.

NBC4: Would all girls pregnant at 15 years old and younger be considered to be rape victims, even if they might not see themselves that way?

Crichton: I think it’s important to understand what the law says in the state of Ohio, and these laws vary by state. In Ohio, the age of consent is 16.

There is some space for children between 13 and 16 that they can engage in sexual activity with peers, other teenagers within four years of their age, as long as no one is over 18. Just imagine: A 15-year-old and a 17-year-old could both be juniors in high school, and if they’re in a relationship and this is something they choose to do, they can engage in sexual activity consensually.

No child under the age of 13 can engage in any kind of sexual activity consensually. Any pregnant child, or any child that has a sexually transmitted infection that’s under 13, would be considered a suspected victim of sexual abuse or assault.

NBC4: What supports will be in place for pregnant girls to comply with Ohio law governing termination?

Crichton: At Nationwide Children’s Hospital, at the Center for Family Safety and Healing, we are healthcare providers. We will continue to provide appropriate healthcare to our patients within the scope of the law as we have always done.

We continue to provide the appropriate resources to meet our patients’ needs. We have a Teen and Pregnant clinic here at the hospital. We have mental health supports for our patients that are suspected victims of abuse and for teenagers that may be facing mental health crises regardless of how they became pregnant.

NBC4: How do we care for those girls 15 and under mentally?

Crichton: Certainly pregnancy and the decision-making around pregnancy is challenging, no matter what age you are. The younger patients that we have are going to face more challenges just because they lack the kind of maturity to really deal with it.

We have lots of support around mental health. We have behavioral health here at the center. We also have immense social work and psychological support around the hospital. Most of our clinics have good resources to support mental health and to support decisions.

The other thing that we can do is provide support through nurse-family partnership, and Healthy Families America, which are both home visitation programs. Nurses go out to the homes of pregnant people to help guide them through getting ready for having a baby, help support them through school completion, and help support them once they have a newborn. As anyone that’s ever taken care of a newborn knows, they are certainly challenging and busy and can come with a lot of needs that a young parent may not anticipate.

These nurse-family partnerships will follow the children through the first year or two of life to help the family succeed.

NBC4: What’s important to do after a sexual assault?

Crichton: One of the most important things around any child or teenager who makes a disclosure of sexual abuse or assault is that whoever is hearing this outcry believes them, takes them seriously and makes the appropriate referrals.

If anyone encounters a child that is saying, “Someone is hurting me,” or “Someone’s doing something that’s not OK to my body,” I would just strongly encourage that we listen, we believe them, and we reach out to the center, to children’s services, to law enforcement, so that children get the resources that they need.

Time is certainly of the essence, for the child’s safety, for any medical needs that may arise, be it pregnancy or any other medical needs, and we want to make sure that we can keep these children in a safe environment.

Additional resources

In a statement, Franklin County Children Services said it provides services to any unmarried girl who is pregnant or has delivered a child.

“We have a collaborative partnership with Center For Healthy Families for any pregnant teen involved with Franklin County Children Services,” the statement said. “Center for Healthy Families provides 12-24 months of case management while the youth is enrolled in their Healthy Families Connections program.”

The Center for Healthy Families focuses on safe and stable housing, delivery of a proper medical and emotional care, healthy relationships, and parenting skills, said Franklin County Children Services. Its child abuse and neglect hotline number 614-229-7000 is staffed 24 hours each day.

Helplines for victims of sexual violence
Report Child Abuse is an Ohio hotline, with calls routed to law enforcement or children’s services in your county. Columbus Division of Police goes directly to Columbus law enforcement. The Ohio Sexual Violence Helpline gives support and crisis counseling.

About this series

NBC4 is doing a series of stories the week of Aug. 29, 2022, on children, rape and sexual assault.