There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. (Nelson Mandela, May 8, 1995)
Recently, I walked into an event that was addressing the issue of child sexual abuse. What I remember the most from that event was the look on the faces of those charged with keeping our children safe from this horrific crime. They had their usual expression of great concern and compassion but this time they had the overwhelming look of exhaustion. We shared a brief exchange of words and it was brief because they didn’t seem to have the exact words in that moment to articulately express why this keeps happening to our children. No matter how hard they worked in preventing abuse and supporting victims, the continuing outcries from new victims seemed overwhelming.
As of late, this experience has not been an isolated one for me personally. One can fill in the blanks as to whether this was an event at a church, school district or youth sports organization. There has been so much in the news about another outcry of child sexual abuse involving clergy, coaches, teachers or other school personnel. In many of these reports there have been hundreds of victims. This is and can be very overwhelming to hear, especially the enormity of it all. It can be extremely difficult for the community to hear as well as overwhelming to those who do this work each and every day. And it can be especially overwhelming for survivors.
I fear that there might be a fatigue of sorts not in the mission of preventing child sexual abuse and not by the professionals and individuals who fight for prevention every day, but a fear that the community may be getting a bit fatigued in hearing all of what seems to be the never-ending cases of child sexual abuse that always seem to be cycling in the news. But one of the reasons why we might be hearing so much is because of the prevention work that we are doing and the successful impact that we are all making in the community to bring this issue to the forefront. I strongly advocate that we all must be aware so that we all can do more to prevent this tragedy from happening. We simply must do more. We must do better for our children. Everyone has a role to play in protecting children and fostering resilience in our children and in our communities.
It seems that child sexual abuse is everywhere. Child sexual abuse is the most prevalent health problem children face today. Child sexual abuse can happen to any child, and it can happen anywhere. This is a crime that knows no bounds. It is not a problem of just one socio-economic, culture, race, religion, or gender. It impacts every community and every person across the globe. No matter what statistic we use, whether it’s one out of 10 children will be abused before their 18th birthday (one out of 7 girls and one out of 25 boys) or 1 out 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys, it is one child too many! Approximately 90% of those who are victims of child sexual abuse know their abuser. Abusers can be neighbors, friends, family members, teachers, coaches, clergy, anyone. It is also important to know that children can also be abused by an older, more powerful child. Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults, including sexual assaults of adults, occur to children aged 17 and under. Only about one-third of the children who are sexually abused ever tell anyone about their abuse.
Although prevalent, I strongly believe that child sexual abuse is one of the most preventable abuses against our children. We must educate adults, all adults in the community and we must also educate our children in an age-appropriate way in order to prevent child sexual abuse.
I am a Prevention Specialist for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois (PCA IL) and the Program Manager for our Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program. PCA IL is honored to have Mike Hoffman, one of the co-founders of this newsletter, serve as our current PCA IL Board President. PCA IL is actively involved in prevention education and public awareness, community outreach, public policy advocacy, and promotion of effective prevention programs.
Prevention education for all youth serving organizations and for all adults is key to ending child sexual abuse. At PCA IL we deliver child sexual abuse prevention education. I am a Certified Facilitator and Certified Instructor for the Darkness to Light ‘Stewards of Children’ training. ‘Stewards of Children’ is a prevention training that teaches adults how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. The program is designed for organizations that serve youth and for individuals concerned about the safety of children. It is the only nationally distributed, evidence-informed program proven to increase knowledge, improve attitudes, and change child protective behaviors. For more information click here.
It is extremely important that adults learn the warning signs so they can do something to help a child who may have been abused or who may be at risk of child sexual abuse. Each individual needs to be an active bystander. An active bystander is a person who witnesses a boundary violation or sees a situation where a child is vulnerable or sees other concerning behaviors that may indicate a child is at risk of harm, and actively intervenes to prevent child sexual abuse. Active bystanders are prepared to make spontaneous or planned interventions that reinforce safety boundaries and protects children. For more information about the training offered by Darkness to Light, including its “Bystanders Protecting Children from Boundary Violations & Sexual Abuse” click here.
One of the best protections for our children is our relationship with them. We need to have on-going age-appropriate open and honest conversations with them about their bodies, healthy sexuality and boundaries. For many adults this can be very uncomfortable to do. But I will tell you, this is precisely what those who target and offend children are counting on. They are counting on our discomfort in discussing such things. However, the temporary discomfort that you may feel of these protective conversations is nothing compared to the overwhelming and devastating conversations that could occur should a child be abused. If these conversations start at a very early age it gets easier over time to continue these conversations with your child as they age. Besides, you want to be the trusted adult that your children can always come to should they have any questions or concerns.
From the very beginning teaching children the proper names for body parts is so important. Teaching them that their private parts are private and reinforce that no one should ask to touch or look at their private parts. But also explain that there are times when certain adults do touch them to help keep them clean and healthy such as the doctor’s office or bath. Overall, teach children about ‘Safe and Unsafe’ or ‘Comfortable and Uncomfortable’ touches. Use these conversations about touching as teachable moments. Also:
- Teach a child “No, Go & Tell.”
- Teach them that they have the right to say “no” or “stop” when someone touches or asks to touch their body.
- Teach them to go and tell a trusted adult if someone has tried to touch their private parts or asked for them to touch theirs. Identify with your child who the trusted adults are that they can tell.
- Teach children, no secrets! Teach children how secrets can be a bad thing. Teach them not to keep secrets and explain to them that if someone asks them to keep a secret to come and tell you, no matter what. There is never a good reason to keep a secret from you or their caregiver.
- Teach children to listen to their gut or that “uh-oh” feeling. If someone makes them feel uncomfortable tell them they should move away from that person and find a trusted adult. Teach them that if anyone tries to break any of the safety rules that you have established with them to tell you or another trusted adult immediately.
These are just a few suggestions for younger children and there is so much more that you can do. There are also safety rules for older children to reinforce their personal safety boundaries. Teaching children safety rules throughout their life is not only a critical part of keeping children better protected from child sexual abuse, it empowers them.
There are so many great resources for having these conversations with your children at any age, such as:
- Talking to Your Kids About Body Safety (PDF)
- How to Talk with Kids about Sexual Abuse (link)
- Child Abuse Prevention: Conversation Guide (PDF)
- Stop It Now: Tip Sheet (link)
We must also demand that the organizations that serve our children implement effective prevention programs and child protection policies. For instance, school personnel identify 52% of all identified child abuse cases. Schools should be training all staff how to recognize and respond to child sexual abuse as well as how to prevent it, as well as educating their children in an age appropriate way about personal boundary safety and healthy sexuality. There should also be a parent/guardian prevention education component included as well. Ask your school what they are doing in terms of helping to keep children safe and strongly advocate for these programs and policies. For more information as relates to Erin’s Law in Illinois see this link. And, for more information regarding child protection policies and best practice, here is Step Up and Speak Out for an overview.
The impact of child sexual abuse is devastating. And, whether or not you realize it, child sexual abuse affects all of us in some way. All children deserve to be safe and grow up to be happy and healthy. Ultimately, it is always the responsibility of adults to keep children safe. Therefore, we all must do more to protect children. We must create safe environments for all children. Each of us has a role to play in creating a safer and better world for our children.
This is a call to action. What will be yours?
Jennifer is a Prevention Specialist for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. Her duties include collaborating, advocating and promoting the prevention of child abuse in the Northern Region of Illinois. She is also the Program Manager for the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Initiative for PCA Illinois. She is a Certified Facilitator and Certified Instructor for the Darkness to Light’s, “Stewards of Children” child sexual abuse prevention program. She also serves on the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services Northern Region Child Death Review Team.
Jennifer’s prior work experience includes being employed by the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office at the Child Advocacy Center. Working as a Child and Family Advocate, Jennifer worked with children traumatized by child sexual abuse. Jennifer currently holds a position on the Friend’s Board of the DuPage County Children’s Advocacy Center. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University and also a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management & Leadership from Walden University.