As adults – IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY to protect children. Darkness to Light (D2L) is an organization that seeks to protect children from sexual abuse by placing responsibility squarely on adult shoulders. Although some children are taught how to keep themselves safe from sexual abuse—and that’s important for them to learn—it’s no substitute for adult responsibility. We make sure children wear seat belts. We walk them across busy streets. Why, then, would we leave the job of preventing child sexual abuse solely to children? Imagine how difficult it is for a child to say no to a parent, a teacher, a coach, or clergy.
D2L outlines 7 STEPS TOWARDS PREVENTION OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE and I have tweaked them a bit for our purposes.
Step One: Learn the facts and understand the risks.
Realities—not trust—should influence your decisions regarding children.
Experts estimate that 1 in 10 children is sexually abused before age 18. More specifically, 1 in 7 girls and 1 in 25 boys is sexually abused before age 18. This means that in any classroom or neighborhood full of children, there are children who are silently bearing the burden of sexual abuse.
- Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children ages 17 and under.
The median age for reported sexual abuse is 9 years old.
- Approximately 20 percent of the victims of sexual abuse are under age 8.
- Approximately 50 percent of all victims of forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling are under age 12.
- Most child victims never report the abuse.
- Sexually abused children who keep it a secret or who “tell” and are not believed are at greater risk than the general population for psychological, emotional, social, and physical problems that often last into adulthood.
- Approximately 30–40 percent of children are abused by family members.
- Nearly 40 percent are abused by older or larger children.
- In 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, the child and the child’s family know and trust the abuser.
- Approximately 70 percent of sexual offenders of children have between 1 and 9 victims; 20–25 percent have 10–40 victims. Serial child molesters may have as many as 400 victims in their lifetimes.
Step Two: Minimize the opportunity.
If you eliminate or reduce one-adult-one-child situations, you’ll dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse for children.
More than 80 percent of sexual abuse cases occur in one-adult-one-child situations.
Insist on screenings that include criminal background checks, personal interviews, and professional recommendations for all adults who serve children. Avoid programs that do not use all of these methods.
Ensure that youth-serving organizations have policies for dealing with suspicious situations and reports of abuse.
While one-on-one time with a trusted adult is healthy and valuable for a child, there are things you can do to protect children when you want them to have time alone with another adult:
- Drop in unexpectedly.
- Make sure outings are observable—if not by you, then by others.
- Ask the adult about the specifics of the planned activities before the child leaves your care. Notice the adult’s ability to be specific.
- Talk with the child when he or she returns. Notice the child’s mood and whether the child can tell you with confidence how the time was spent.
- Find a way to tell the adults who care for your children that you and the child are educated about child sexual abuse. Be that direct.
Step Three: Talk about it.
Children often keep abuse a secret, but barriers can be broken down by talking openly about it. One survey showed that fewer than 30 percent of parents ever discussed sexual abuse with their children. Even then, most parents or caregivers failed to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend or family member.
Understand why children are afraid to tell. The abuser shames the child, manipulates and confuses the child about what is right and wrong, and threatens the child or a family member. Children are afraid of disappointing their parents and disrupting the family; some children are too young to understand.
Know how children communicate. Children who disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult other than a parent. As a caveat, this is why it is so important to share with babysitters, teachers, and club leaders that you and your child are educated about sexual abuse; that way if the child reveals anything to them, they are not only less likely to violate your child but are also more likely to report any disclosure from your child with you.
Children may tell parts of what happened or pretend it happened to someone else to gauge adult reaction. Children will often “shut down” and refuse to tell more if you respond emotionally or negatively.
Talk openly with children. Good communication may decrease a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse and increase the likelihood that the child will tell you if abuse has occurred.
Model caring for your own body, and teach children how to care for theirs.
The bathing suit technique is easy and clear. If your bathing suit covers it, no one else should touch it—unless it’s a doctor with a parent or guardian present, and only for medical reasons.
Be sure to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend, family member, or older youth.
Teach children not to give out their e-mail addresses, home addresses, Facebook information, or phone numbers while using the Internet.
Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse.
Talk to other adults about child sexual abuse.
Support and mutual learning occur when you share with another adult. You raise the consciousness of your community and influence their choices about child safety. You put potential abusers on notice that you are paying attention.
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.