CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE … FIVE STEPS TO PROTECT CHILDREN
[I]t is not important to know the
intentions of the person who crossed
the boundary. What is important is that
you reinforce the boundary … .
By F. Scott Addis, CPCU, CRA, ACRA, TRA, ASA
Because it’s unrealistic to think a child should be responsible for fending off advances
In part one of this two-part series discussing child sexual abuse, we explored the magnitude of the issue as well as grooming, effects, and myths. In this installment, you will learn about a five-step program to protect children. A special thank you to Darkness to Light (www.D2L.org), a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child abuse, for contributing its wisdom.
The issue of child sexual abuse is serious, significant, and pervasive. It affects our communities, our families, our clients, and even our agencies. As community leaders and risk professionals, we must be aware of the topic, concerned about its impact, and diligent about preventing it. It’s a tough topic to discuss. But just because it makes us uncomfortable doesn’t mean we can ignore it.
Before we explore the five steps to protect children, it is imperative to reinforce that child sexual abuse is an adult issue. Why? It is unrealistic to think that a child should be responsible for fending off sexual advances by an adult.
- Learn the facts. The facts about child sexual abuse are astounding. Know what sexual abuse is. Recognize its prevalence. Understand how it occurs. And realize the impact.
People who abuse children look and act like everyone else. In fact, they 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, camps, and schools.
- Minimize the opportunity. Safer environments can help reduce the risk for abuse. More than 80% of sexual abuse cases occur in isolated, one-on-one situations.
Reduce the risk:
- Think carefully about the safety of any isolated, one-on-one settings. Make sure interactions with children can be observed.
- Carefully evaluate the safety of situations in which older youth have access to younger children.
- Set an example by personally avoiding isolated, one-on-one situations with children other than your own.
- Understand that abusers often become friendly with potential victims and their families, enjoying family activities, earning trust, and gaining time alone with children.
- Monitor children’s internet use. Offenders use the internet to lure children into physical contact.
- Policies and procedures are essential:
- Policies and procedures should reinforce that all activities can be interrupted observed.
- Insist on screenings that include criminal background checks, personal interviews and professional recommendations for all adults who serve children.
Insist that youth-serving organizations train their staff and volunteers to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
Regarding one-on-one time with an adult and a child:
- Drop in unexpectedly when the child is alone with an adult or another youth, even if it is a trusted family member.
- 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.
- Talk about it. Have open conversations with children. When we talk to children in age-appropriate ways about our bodies, sex, and boundaries, children understand what healthy relationships look like. Doing this also teaches them that they have the right to say “no.” They become less vulnerable to people who choose to violate their boundaries and are more likely to tell you if abuse occurs.
When talking to children about sexual abuse, it is important that you:
- Teach children that it is “against the rules” for adults to act in a sexual way with them.
- Teach them what parts of their bodies others should not touch.
- Teach children not to give out personal information while using the internet, including email addresses, home addresses, and phone numbers.
- Are proactive. If a child seems uncomfortable or resistant to being with a particular adult, ask why.
It is also imperative that you understand why children are afraid. Consider the following:
- The abuser is often manipulative and may try to confuse the child about what is right or wrong, or tell them that abuse is a “game.”
- The abuser sometimes threatens to harm the child or a family member.
- 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.
- Some children who do not initially disclose abuse are ashamed to tell when it happened.
- Children are afraid of disappointing their parents and disrupting the family.
- Children often love the abuser, and don’t want to get anyone in trouble or end the relationship.
- It is recommended that you make every effort to understand how children communicate. Be aware that:
- Children who disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult other than a parent.
- 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.
- Recognize the signs. Do not expect obvious signs when a child is being sexually abused. These signs can be indistinguishable from other signs of child stress, distress, or trauma, as indicated below:
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 behavior signs are more common including:
- “Too perfect” or overly compliant behavior.
- Behavioral problems, physical aggression, non-compliance, and rebellion.
- Anxiety, depression, fear, withdrawal, and suicidal thoughts.
- Nightmares, bed-wetting, bullying, and cruelty to animals.
- Lack of interest in friends, sports, and other activities.
- Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate.
Use a Children’s Advocacy Center whenever possible for physical exams and psychological evaluation and treatment. These centers provide trauma-sensitive, child-friendly, safe places for families to seek help. To find one near you, visit nca-online.org or call (800) 239-9950. If you do not have a center near you, call Child Protective Services or law enforcement in your area.
- React responsibly. Understand how to respond to disclosures, discoveries, and suspicions of sexual abuse. Don’t overreact. When you react to a 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.
Very few reported incidents of child sexual abuse are false. For that reason, the following represent “best practices” for managing reported incidents:
- Think through your response before you react.
- Believe the child and make sure that he or she knows that you do.
- Thank the child for telling you and praise the child’s courage.
- Encourage the child to talk, but do not ask leading questions about details.
- Assure the child that it is your responsibility to protect him or her and that you will do all that 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.
- Try not to show anger toward the offender, who may be someone the child loves. You can add to the child’s burden by showing how upset you are.
Offenders are rarely caught in the act of abusing a child, but they are often seen breaking rules and pressing boundaries. Suspicion of sexual abuse means that you have seen signs in a child, or you have witnessed boundary violations by adults or other youth toward a child.
If you are a “bystander” who witnessed a boundary violation or sees a situation in which a child is vulnerable, it is 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.
Here are suggested action steps:
- All 50 states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Information about each state’s requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG).
- If you are a professional who works with children (i.e., teacher, nurse, etc.), there are special procedures and reporting requirements you must follow.
- Know the agencies that handle abuse reports. The two that handle the most reports of child abuse are Child Protective Services (in some states this agency has a different name) and law enforcement.
- Many states have toll-free lines that accept reports of abuse statewide. To find out where to make a report in your state, identify the Child Abuse Reporting and Neglect Numbers at the CWIG website (www.childwelfare.gov).
- If the legal system does not provide adequate protection for a child, visit the National Center for Victims of Crime (victimsofcrime.org) or call (800) FYI-CALL for referral information.
Stewards of Children
Darkness to Light offers training that specializes in the education and prevention of child sexual abuse. Its flagship program—Stewards of Children—teaches adults how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. The program is offered virtually as well as in person. To learn more, go to www.D2L.org/get-trained.
Child sexual abuse … educate, research, and advocate!
Scott Addis is CEO of Beyond Insurance and an industry leader. To learn more about Beyond Insurance, contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.