Responding to ‘the unimaginable’
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
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By Harvest Prude with Nicole Ault, Esther Eaton, Leah Hickman, Alyssa Jackson, Joshua Meribole, and Madison Miller
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 statement: “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 filed 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.
‘This hurt was all here before—now we just know about it. We’re actually closer to healing today than we were … when we didn’t know this was happening.’ —Aaron Baart
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.”
One father, Paul Dezeeuw, has lived in Sioux Center for half a century and has worked at Sioux Center’s Co-op Gas and Oil for 21 years. He said, “Who’s going to want to … tell their mom and dad, ‘Teacher’s touching me?’ You’d be scared to death to say something. I mean, I would be.”
Two days after Van Dam’s arrest, the school posted a video of young SCCS students in colorful T-shirts singing in the gym. “In the good things and in the hardest parts,” the kids belted, “I believe, and I will follow You!” The caption praised God for “working mightily” at the school and for His faithfulness.
Churches organized meetings to help the community grieve. One weekend at the First Reformed Church, attendees gathered an hour before their Sunday service to pray. Faith Christian Reformed Church families prepared and brought meals to Mrs. Van Dam, and women from the church visited her.
Aaron Baart, Dordt’s dean of chapel, worked with other pastors to organize a Service of Lament on Nov. 1. Two of his children had Van Dam as a teacher, so he shared the sense of betrayal: “Were my children abused? … How did we not see this coming? … How could someone have gotten away with this?” Pastors, parents, students, and teachers in Dordt College’s auditorium cried, sang, and acknowledged what had happened.
Scott TeStroete and other public school board members attended the service to convey the message that “the public school supports you 110 percent. … They’re all our kids. … I don’t care if you go to the public school, the Christian school—in the end you’re all our kids.”
One week later, Sioux County Attorney Thomas Kunstle charged Van Dam with 146 state charges—103 felonies and 43 misdemeanors. The Head of School, Josh Bowar, said in a statement, “Though the number of charges do not necessarily reflect the number of students, we are grieved again as we hear the extent of the charges. We’ve wept, now it’s time to weep again. We’ve prayed, now we need to continue praying. We’ve brought our anger and fears to the Lord, and now we need to lay those feelings again at His feet.”
‘We’ve wept, now it’s time to weep again. We’ve prayed, now we need to continue praying.’ —Josh Bowar
Bowar was just four months into the position when he faced every administrator’s nightmare. He had SCCS bring in mental health professionals to talk to students. Aaron Baart and his wife Nicole led a session at SCCS about emotions, spirituality, and sexuality: “I needed to affirm for them the right to be angry. They were deceived. Someone abused their position of power.” Another session dealt with abuse and re-educating students on consent. The school retaught sexual education, which Van Dam had previously taught.
Not everybody sought help. Baart sees that as the fallout of a conservative community that went from “zero to 60” in talking about sexual sin—and “everybody is still suffering from whiplash.” He warned hurt students that secrecy “would not heal them … and their 30-year-old self would thank them” if they sought help.
Baart knows some parents haven’t asked their kids hard questions, and some young adults have refused to talk—not wanting to tell their girlfriends, wives, or parents they were molested as children. One student told Baart about a group of high-school boys who made a pact that they would “beat the crap” out of anyone who came forward. One student asked, “Who wants to open Pandora’s box?”
Refusing to deal with the hurt “shortchanges everything Jesus rose to do,” Baart told students. “You have to deal with the hurt and the pain. … We were invited to share in the suffering and to share in the resurrection.” Baart warns other communities not to leave conversations until too late: “I wish we would have plowed the ground a little better—been a little more aware … of how deep and pervasive sexual sin and temptation is.”
On Nov. 27, Van Dam pleaded not guilty to the sexual abuse charges. The following week he posted a $150,000 bail bond and secured his release from the Sioux County Jail. That made people angry, Paul Dezeeuw said: “As far as I know he has not said that he has done anything wrong. As Christians, we’re supposed to love everybody. … But when something like this happens—you think he’s the biggest dirtbag around.”
A subdued Christmas season came and went. Not only had Van Dam claimed innocence, but he hired a private investigator, Terry Klooster of Finality Investigations, to work on his behalf. Aaron Baart said once people heard about that, they were too scared to say much.
Parents and staff were determined things should get back to normal when the second school term rolled around. One donor arranged for the SCCS kids to have a snow day in lieu of a regular school day. Kids loaded up in buses, took a road trip to Sioux City, and went sledding at a park.
On Jan. 25, 2018, a federal court indicted Van Dam for possessing child pornography and sexually exploiting a child. According to the Sioux City Journal, prosecutors accused Van Dam of making the pornographic videos himself: They showed video of Van Dam putting a camera into a mesh bag and aiming it for the locker rooms. On Jan. 26 he was back in jail, where he has remained.
Though charges cover the period from 2013 to 2017, some people in the community believe the behavior goes back further. Dezeeuw said his son played on Van Dam’s basketball team about a decade ago and remembers coach Van Dam telling him to stand a certain way in the shower. The Dezeeuws are not pressing charges, but they hope Van Dam will go to jail for life.
On Feb. 13, Aaron Baart organized a “1,000 Man Stand.” Groups of men and boys walked and prayed through neighborhoods on a 30-degree night. Dordt football coach Joel Penner walked with his sons, ages 6 and 8, at his side. The march finished at Dordt, where women lined the sidewalk and greeted them with hot chocolate and cookies. In the auditorium Penner challenged the men to find their identity in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Beginning in January, and continuing through March and April, 31 adult mentors met with the SCCS seventh- and eighth-graders for “Grace Groups” every Thursday. Head of School Bowar uploaded “Friday Update” videos each week and held regular “Just Ask Josh” Q&A sessions.
On May 18 Bowar and director of learning Lisa Mouw, in their last video of the school year, thanked the community for continued support. Mouw said, “We ask that you continue to pray for Sioux Center Christian, for students, teachers, staff—” and she broke off midsentence. In the long pause, her eyes grew misty. Then she continued, voice thick, “… that we may grow in our trust, and in courage, and to engage in the story of God here.”
At the May 23 commencement, 53 eighth-graders walked across a stage to receive their diplomas. The school closed the next day for the summer—but the real end to the school year was a city-sponsored, communitywide picnic a week later. A five-person worship band played under the half-dome in a corner of the park: “Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. …” The amplified music wafted through the 90-degree air as volunteers served on Styrofoam plates burgers or pork, bacon and cheese toppings, potato chips and ice cream bars, lemonade or juice.
Parents chatted, children played, and grandparents rested in lawn chairs. A woman in scrubs, scuba goggles, and arm floaties sat on a dunk tank. A small blond boy threw a yellow softball right on target and dropped the woman into the water. Across from the tank, volunteers dressed as Elsa from Frozen and Poppy from the movie Trolls posed for photos with little girls.
The message was clear: Sioux Center residents wanted to move on with normal life after being saturated with the Van Dam case for months. Dezeeuw’s younger son told his dad he was sick of the constant discussion of the case at school.
Yet reminders of the case came.
On a Sunday morning in late May, Dordt College freshman Lauren Baas sat in church. The pastor asked the person in charge of screens to advance a slide. She immediately thought of Curtis Van Dam, who used to do slides. She and her brother had attended SCCS and considered him a favorite teacher, and she used to baby-sit his kids. Seven months had passed since Baas heard the news, but thoughts of him still hurt: “I felt guilty for that hurting because … he hurt so many people. … I should be happy that he’s locked up, right?”
On June 11 in the U.S. District Court in Sioux City, Van Dam pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child and agreed to a sentence of 15 years in prison. The Sioux City Journal reported at least 125 people packed the courtroom, leaving standing room only. The prosecuting attorney expects federal sentencing to occur in early September.
Van Dam’s state trial, originally slated for July 17, will take place after the federal sentencing. Until then, he remains in federal custody. His defense attorney, Edward Bjornstad, would not say whether a plea agreement for state charges is on the table.
As the case stretched on, families left for vacation, attended ballgames, and enjoyed community events, like the pancake breakfast Faith Christian Reformed Church hosted on July 4.
Therapist Shawn Scholten believes ultimate healing won’t occur until heaven but sees “points of healing in the brokenness.” One “point” has been an uptick of people referring to counseling their older children, neighbors, and friends. She said more parents have talked to their children about boundaries and good touch and bad touch.
“This hurt was all here before—now we just know about it,” Aaron Baart said. “We’re actually closer to healing today than we were … when we didn’t know this was happening.”
—The authors are World Journalism Institute graduates
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