As adults – IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY to protect children. Although some children are taught how to keep themselves safe from sexual abuse it’s no substitute for adult responsibility.
Below is the continuation of 7 STEPS TOWARDS THE PREVENTION OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE based on information from Darkness to Light.
Step Four: Stay alert.
Don’t expect obvious signs when a child is being sexually abused.
Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes, or swelling in the genital area; urinary tract infections; or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical problems associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur.
Emotional or behavioral signals are common. These can run from “too perfect” behavior to withdrawal and depression to unexplained anger and rebellion. Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be a red flag. Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.
If you find physical signs that you suspect indicate sexual abuse, have the child physically examined immediately by a professional who specializes in child sexual abuse. To find a center near you, contact the National Children’s Alliance at www.nca-online.org/members.html or 1-800-239-9950. The opportunity to convict a child molester may depend on evidence from an examination.
Step Five: Make a plan.
Learn where to go, whom to call, and how to react.
If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know why you should stay calm and where to seek help, because you’ve mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same. Your reactions have a powerful influence on vulnerable children.
When you react to disclosure with anger or disbelief, the response often takes one or more of the following forms:
- The child shuts down.
- The child changes his or her story in the face of your anger or disbelief, when in fact abuse is actually occurring.
- The child changes the account around your questions so future accounts appear to be “coached.” This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
- The child feels even guiltier.
Very few—an estimated less than 4 percent—reported incidents are false. If the allegation is false, it typically only occurs in divorce or custody evaluations as part of parental alienation schemes.
Offer support and think through your response before you suspect abuse. You’ll be able to respond in a more supportive manner.
Believe the child and make sure the child knows it.
Thank the child for telling you, and praise the child’s courage.
Encourage the child to talk but don’t ask leading questions about details. Asking about details can alter the child’s memory of events. If you must ask questions to the child talking, ask open-ended ones, such as, “What happened next?”
Immediately report or take action in all cases of suspected abuse, both inside and outside the immediate family. You are not a trained investigator and should not interview the child as if you were.
Seek the help of a professional who is trained to interview the child about sexual abuse. Professional guidance could be critical to the child’s healing and to any criminal prosecution.
Assure the child that it is your responsibility to protect him or her and that you’ll do all you can.
Don’t panic. Sexually abused children who receive support and psychological help can and do heal.
Child sexual abuse is a crime. Know the legal requirements for reporting it.
All fifty states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report them. Information about each state’s requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway at www.childwelfare.gov.
Two types of agencies handle most reports of child abuse: child protective services (in some states this agency has a different name) and law enforcement.
To find out where to make a report in your state, identify the child abuse reporting numbers at the Child Welfare Information Gateway at www.childwelfare.gov.
If the legal system does not provide adequate protection for a child, visit the National Center for Victims of Crime at www.ncvc.org or call 1-800-FYI-CALL for referral information.
Step Six: Act on suspicions.
The future well-being of a child is at stake. By acting on suspicions of child sexual abuse, you will save not only one child, but perhaps countless others. Many of those who sexually abuse children have multiple victims.
Where do you go if you are not sure? Child abuse help lines have staff specifically trained to deal with questions about suspected child sexual abuse. Call Darkness to Light’s helpline, 1-866-FOR-LIGHT, to be routed to resources in your community, or call the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
Children’s Advocacy Centers coordinate all the professionals (legal, social services, medical) involved in a case. If you’re unsure about whether to make an official report, or you just need support, contact a children’s advocacy center. The staff will help you evaluate your suspicions and your next steps. To find a center near you, contact the National Children’s Alliance at www.nca-online.org or 1-800-239-9950.
Talk to the child’s parents (as long as they are not the abusers) and provide educational materials. If the parents seem indifferent or unlikely to take action, call one of the recommended sources.
The resources can help you if you are unsure of whether abuse has occurred, but they are not a substitute for making an official report. Your reports to child protective services agencies are always confidential. You may also make an anonymous report to local law enforcement.
Step Seven: Get involved.
Volunteer and financially support organizations that fight the tragedy of child sexual abuse.
What can you do to help children in my community? Get involved by donating your time and resources to support organizations such as these:
- Prevention programs
- Children’s advocacy centers
- Crisis information and referral services
- Rape crisis centers
Use your voice and your vote to make your community a safer place for children. Support legislation that protects children.
Ask that schools and organizations in your community have child sexual abuse prevention policies, and help with their creation. Ask other adults to do the same.
When research was done with children under the age of 12 who had been sexually abused, it was found that 92 percent were severely traumatized. The research suggested that it was not the sexual abuse alone that caused the long-term trauma to be so severe; it was what happened to the children in the years following the abuse. The most significant factor was the fact that the children proceeded through childhood without assistance or rescue.
Mary Ellen Mann
Mary Ellen Mann is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Denver (visit www.manncounselinggroup.com). After attending a Christian college, she did her graduate work at Columbia University. Recently she co-founded Last Battle, LLC and helped develop the first interactive website for survivors of sexual violation, www.lastbattle.org, to help survivors, family and friends of survivors, Christian leaders, and professionals who care about this population. Her book, From Pain to Power will be on the market September 22, 2015. Mary Ellen lives in Denver with her husband and their two sons.