Children who have been sexually abused not only have to deal with what has happened to them, but also have to gather up the courage and power it takes to overcome their experiences.
We don’t want children to be afraid to speak out against their attacker. They need to know that it’s okay to say something.
As a child, it’s very hard to understand when it happens to you because you’re not only scared and embarrassed – you don’t feel normal – something is DIFFERENT.
There needs to be a real fear for the perpetrators. Attention must be drawn to the situation. One way to help is to have an area in schools or another trusted place for victims to turn that would give them the confidence to report it. Every child deserves to have a trusted person or place to report an incident.
There are programs in place to educate and protect children from the unthinkable. One of these programs is through an organization called Darkness to Light.
When scouring the internet for ways to prevent sexual abuse, Darkness to Light had everything I was looking for. The organization’s honest, yet caring approach regarding a topic not one of us wants to face, opened the door for me to learn more about what I can do to help, what I needed to know to protect children, what to look for, and how I can help educate others. I thank them profusely for their material and facts.
They have put together an informative guide titled, “5 Steps to Protecting Our Children.” This guide outlines the core principles for preventing, recognizing, and reacting responsibly to child abuse.
Step 1: Learn the Facts
Realities, Not Trust, Should Influence Your Decisions Regarding Children
“We live in a beautiful, safe neighborhood. None of these children could be victims of sexual abuse, right?”
It is highly likely that you know a child who has been or is being abused.
- Experts estimate that 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. This means that in any classroom or neighborhood full of children, there are children who are silently bearing the burden of sexual abuse.
- 1 in 5 children are sexually solicited while on the Internet.31
- Youth are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than adults.32, 34
- About 35% of victims are 11 years old or younger.34, 35
- 9% of 10 to 17-year-olds receive a sexual request while on the Internet.21
- 30 to 40% of children are abused by family members.33, 34
- As many as 60% are abused by people the family trusts.33, 34
- Nearly 40% are abused by older or larger children.34, 36
- Over 90% of children who are commercially sexually exploited have a history of child sexual abuse.37
- About 75% of child pornography victims are living at home when they are photographed. Parents are often responsible.37
People who abuse children look and act just like every one else. In fact, they often go out of their way to appear trustworthy, seeking out settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, faith centers, clubs, and schools.
“It can’t happen in my family. I could tell if someone I know is an abuser.”
Yet, in more than 90% of sexual abuse cases, the child and the child’s family know and trust the abuser.33, 34
Consequences to children and to our society begin immediately. Child sexual abuse is a direct source of a number of problems facing our communities.
- 70-80% of sexual abuse survivors report excessive drug and alcohol use.
- One study showed that among male survivors, 50% have suicidal thoughts and more than 20% attempt suicide.
- Young girls who are sexually abused are more likely to develop eating disorders as adolescents.
- More than 60% of teen first pregnancies are preceded by experiences of molestation, rape or attempted rape.
- Approximately 40% of sex offenders report sexual abuse as children.
- Both males and females who have been sexually abused are more likely to engage in prostitution.
- Approximately 70% of sexual offenders of children have between 1 and 9 victims; 20-25% have 10 to 40 victims.
- Serial perpetrators may have as many as 400 victims in their lifetimes.
Step 2: Minimize Opportunity
If you eliminate or reduce isolated, one-on-one situations between children and adults, and children and other youth, you’ll dramatically reduce the risk of sexual abuse.
More than 80% of sexual abuse cases occur in isolated, one-on-one situations.
Reduce risk. Protect children.
- Understand that abusers often become friendly with potential victims and their families, enjoying family activities, earning trust, and gaining time alone with children.
- Think carefully about the safety of any isolated, one-on-one settings. Choose group situations when possible.
- Think carefully about the safety of situations in which older youth have access to younger children. Make sure that multiple adults are present who can supervise.
- Set an example by personally avoiding isolated, one-on-one situations with children other than your own.
- Monitor children’s Internet use. Offenders use the Internet to lure children into physical contact.
CREATE AND LOBBY FOR POLICIES reducing or eliminating isolated, one-on-one situations in all youth serving organizations, such as faith groups, sports teams, and school clubs. These policies should ensure that all activities can be interrupted and observed.
- Talk with program administrators about the supervision of older youth who have responsibility for the care of children.
- 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.
- Insist that youth serving organizations train their staff and volunteers to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
- Ensure that youth serving organizations have policies for dealing with suspicious situations and reports of abuse.
ONE-ON-ONE TIME with trusted adults is healthy and valuable for a child. It builds self-esteem and deepens relationships. To protect children while nurturing these relationships:
- Drop in unexpectedly when the child is alone with an adult or another youth, even if it a trusted family member.
- Make sure outings are observable – if not by you, then by others.
- Ask adults about the specifics of planned activities before the child leaves your care. Notice their ability to be specific.
- Talk with the child following the activity. Notice the child’s mood and whether he or she can tell you with confidence how the time was spent.
- Find a way to tell adults who care for children that you and the child are educated about child sexual abuse. Be that direct.
Step 3: Talk About It
Children often keep abuse a secret, but barriers can be broken down by talking openly about our bodies, sex, and boundaries.
“My daughter tells me everything. I know she would tell me if someone touched her or made her feel uncomfortable.”
Understand why children are afraid to tell.
- The abuser shames the child, points out that the child let it happen, or tells the child that his or her parents will be angry.
- The abuser is often manipulative, and may try to confuse the child about what is right and wrong, or tell them the abuse is a “game.”
- The abuser sometimes threatens to harm the child or a family member.
- Some children who do not initially disclose abuse are ashamed to tell when it happens again.
- Children are afraid of disappointing their parents and disrupting the family.
- Some children are too young to understand.
- Children often love the abuser, and don’t want to get anyone in trouble or end the relationship. They just want the abuse to stop.
Know how children communicate.
- Children who disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult other than a parent. For this reason, training for people who work with children is especially important.
- Children may tell portions 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 your child.
Age appropriate, open conversations about our bodies, sex, and boundaries gives children a foundation for understanding and developing healthy relationships. It also teaches them that they have the right to say “no.”
With this foundation in place, they are less vulnerable to people who would violate their boundaries, and are more likely to tell you if abuse occurs.
- Teach children that it is “against the rules” for adults to act in a sexual way with them, and use examples.
- Teach them what parts of their bodies others should not touch.
- Be sure to mention that the abuser might be an adult friend, family member, or older youth.
- Teach children not to give out personal information while using the Internet, including email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers.
- Start early and talk often. Use everyday opportunities to talk about sexual abuse.
- Be proactive. If a child seems uncomfortable, or resistant to being with a particular adult, ask why.
with their children. And even then, most failed to mention that the abuser might be an adult
friend or family member.
Talk to other adults about 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 may be offering support and information to an adult whose child is experiencing abuse, and may not know what to do.
- You put potential abusers on notice that you are paying attention.
Step 4: Recognize the Signs
Don’t expect obvious signs when a child is being sexually abused. Signs are often there, but you have to know what to look for.
Learn the Signs
- Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes/swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical issues associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur.
- Emotional or behavioral signals are more 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 are sexual abuse, have the child physically examined immediately by a professional who specializes in child sexual abuse.
Use a Children’s Advocacy Center whenever possible for physical exams and psychological evaluation and treatment.
Children’s Advocacy Centers provide trauma sensitive, child-friendly, safe places for families to seek help. To find a center near you, contact the National Children’s Alliance at http://www.nca-online.org/, or call 1-800-239-9950.
If you don’t have a center near you, call Child Protective Services or law enforcement in your area. The opportunity to convict someone who has sexually abused a child may depend on evidence from a professional examination.
Step 5: React Responsibly
Disclosure, discover, and suspicions of sexual abuse provide opportunities to intervene on behalf of a child.
“My 11-year-old daughter said her step-father sneaks into her room at night. Then she said she made it up. Now she won’t say anything. I don’t know what to do.”
DISCLOSURE of sexual abuse means a child has chosen you as the person he or she trusts enough to tell. It is the moment when children learn whether others can be trusted to stand up for them.
If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know to stay calm and where to seek help because you’ve mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same.
When you react to disclosure with anger or disbelief, the child will likely:
- Feel even more ashamed and guilty.
- Shut down.
- Change or retract the story, when, in fact, abuse is actually occurring.
- Change the story to match your questions so future tellings appear to be “coached.” This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
Think through your response before you react. 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 keep the child talking, ask open-ended ones like “What happened next?”
- 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’s your responsibility to protect him or her and that you’ll do all you can.
- Report or take action in all cases of suspected abuse, both inside and outside the immediate family.
- Don’t panic. Sexually abused children who receive support and psychological help can and do heal.
DISCOVERY of sexual abuse means you’ve witnessed a sexually abusive act by an adult or youth with a child, or you know by some other means that abuse has taken place.
Report your discovery immediately to law enforcement.
- Tell the child’s name and where he or she lives.
- Tell where you are at the present time, where the child is, and where the offender is, if known.
- Tell what the child said to you.
- Tell what interactions you saw between the alleged offender and the child.
- Tell what other behaviors, if any, you’ve observed in the alleged offender.
- Tell what signs in the child you’ve seen.
- Tell what access the alleged offender has to the child.
SUSPICION of sexual abuse means you’ve seen signs in a child, or you’ve witnessed boundary violations by adults or other youth toward a child.
Set limits. Ask questions.
If you are a “bystander” who witnesses a boundary violation, or sees a situation in which a child is vulnerable, it’s not important to know the intentions of the person who crossed the boundary. What is important is that you reinforce the boundary – even if you are in front of others, or in a public setting.
Describe the behavior
“It’s against policy for you to be in the classroom alone with a student.”
Set a limit
“You need to take your conversation to the student lounge.”
“I’m on my way there, now, so I’ll walk with you.”
Child sexual abuse is a crime.
Know the the policies for reporting disclosures, discoveries, and suspicion in your organization.
- All 50 states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. Information about each state’s requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway www.childwelfare.gov.
- If you are a professional who works with children (e.g., a teacher; a nurse), there are special procedures and reporting requirements you must follow. Your employer should provide mandated reporting training.
Know the agencies that handle reports of abuse.
Two agencies handle most reports of child abuse: Child Protective Services (in some states this agency has a different name) and law enforcement.
Some states designate Child Protective Services as the agency that accepts reports of suspected child abuse. Others designate law enforcement. Some do not designate or designate both. Many states have toll-free lines that accept reports of abuse from the entire state. To find out where to make a report in your state, identify the Child Abuse Reporting Numbers at The Child Welfare Information Gateway website, 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.
Thank you, Darkness to Light for all of the information! Prevention is possible with education.
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References from Darkness to Light’s “5 Steps to Protecting Our Children” Guide
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Darkness to Light strives to ensure that all statistics used represent the best available and most recent research and that cited references are complete
and accurate. Care is taken to select studies that use sound methodology from reputable researchers.