What can you do about child safety?by Melanie Blow.
There are a few very good programs out there that train people to understand, recognize and prevent child sexual abuse. I’ve been trained in two of them. Depending on what community you live in, these programs may be sparingly available to professionals working with kids, or they may be easily available to anyone.
They all have a major short-coming, which is that they don’t work if you spend all your mental energy convincing yourself that this is something you will never need to worry about. You would never hire someone who would do that to a child. You would never socialize with someone who would do that to a child. And this would never, ever happen to your child.
About 20% of children experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. That means a whole lot of parents were wrong in their assumption that they didn’t need to worry about this. I urge anyone who approaches this topic with the mindset of “this isn’t something I need to worry about” to ask themselves why they are so sure they have a better understanding of this than the other 20% of parents.
Here is what the experts want you to know about keeping your kid safe from sexual abuse, the way they want to, but won’t, tell you.
Yes, you need to worry. Child sexual abuse is very common. What’s more, it is a leading contributor to mental illness, drug addiction, poverty, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, suicide, and every other leading cause of death. The enormous stress and trauma of the act change the way a child’s nervous and endocrine systems develop, leading to them to handle stress abnormally. Much of the increased mortality associated with it comes from those changes, in and of themselves, and also the exaggerated importance that self-comforting behaviors (think drugs, alcohol, tobacco, over-eating, etc.) tend to play in the life of survivors. No one wants to think about their child getting into a car accident, but over the years, enough people opened their mind to the possibility of that happening that changes happened. Infant car seats became not only mandatory, but came to be understood as a basic part of parenting. And fewer children die in car accidents as a result.
Yes, there are sex offenders in your neighborhood. People get indignant when they hear this. Sometimes, they’ll counter with retorts about how often they check the local sex offender registries and how even the most minor players in their children’s lives are background checked. The problem with that is that only 2-10% of sex offenders ever get arrested. There are sex offenders in every racial, cultural and socio-economic bracket. They live in every neighborhood. They are often married. They often have children of their own. They often have fantastic reputations in their communities, and have many friends. They go out of their way to have access to children, and the more they can look like upstanding, normal members of the community, the easier this task becomes.
Odds are, your child won’t tell you if it happens. This one baffles parents, and actually plays into #2, as we’ll see later. Kids only have one childhood. Sex offenders have multiple victims throughout their lives. That means they can become utter experts in manipulating children in order to keep them from disclosing their abuse. The act of surviving sexual abuse often make children experts at denying and minimizing all sorts of physical and emotional sources of pain, essentially making silence a coping mechanism. Very young children may not be able to express what happened to them. A child who is old enough to express it is old enough to feel shame and stigma attached to it. They’re old enough to believe the threats and manipulations of the abuser. Well over 90% of the time, children are sexually abused by someone they care about, and their inherent goodness often compels them to protect their abuser, or the abuser’s family. Indeed, when a child is sexually abused their abuser is corrupting all the good things a parent tries to instill in a child- a belief that people and the world in general are good, that it’s in a child’s best interest to be obedient and trusting, and that the people you care about will care about you. That loss is not an easy thing for a child to articulate.
Even if you take your child’s safety seriously, not everyone will. The crux of most Child Sex Abuse prevention curricula is to keep children out of one-child one-adult situations. This is a piece of advice based on sound data- most instances of Child Sex Abuse happen when one child and one adult are alone together. Prevent this from happening, and you should be able to prevent most instances of Child Sex Abuse, right? Yes and no. Outside of the home is a fairly easy policy to adopt, but it only works as long as everyone, from the lowest-level worker to the highest director, understands the importance of it and enforces it. Staff need to be trained in how to avoid these situations. If the email about “no one-child one-adult situations” is no more prominent than the email about “use alternate parking arrangements on Tuesday”, parents have nothing besides a false sense of security. Within families, this policy becomes particularly hard to enforce. It’s very hard to imply that you don’t completely trust someone who is related to you, or that you don’t trust their judgment. I’ve seen parents try to strictly uphold this policy at family functions, then end up burning themselves out so badly they become indiscriminate with who they allow to spend unsupervised time with their child.
The good news is that there are things you can do to decrease the odds that your child will be sexually abused. And the better news is that, by doing them, you make your community safer for all children.
Talk about it. If you talk about it, it’s important to you. If it’s important to you, it’s likely to become more important to the people around you. If you can talk about it with your family and friends, you’ll be able to talk about it with your child’s teachers, coaches, etc. If you talk about it with your child, you’re nudging up the odds of your child disclosing to you.
Support Statute of Limitations reform. We already talked about why most kids don’t disclose their abuse while they’re kids. Nothing magic happens to them the minute they turn 18 that makes this secret easy for them to tell. Realistically, by the time they’re 18, they’re very often engulfed in those negative, comfort-seeking behaviors that decrease the quantity and quality of their lives. The lucky ones stop and pull themselves together, but usually by the time they do, it’s too late for them to seek justice in court, due to the Statutes of Limitations that are applied to this crime. And that’s a big part of why no more than 10% of sex offenders get arrested. Fixing these laws can get more bad guys in prison, it lets more victims experience justice and empowerment, and it gets communities talking about the issue.
Don’t be paranoid, don’t be naïve. Remember that not everyone wants to hurt your child. At the same time, remember that there is no label someone can wear, no affiliation they can have that means they won’t. Be very mindful of who your child has major relationships with. Focus your thinking on situations and risk, not on people. Be very mindful of people who want to spend an ever-increasing amount of time with your child. Pay attention to their reaction if you don’t let that happen, or if you insist on some changes in the way they spend time with your child. Follow your gut instinct- if you have a bad feeling about someone, don’t dismiss it.
The world is, largely, a good place. Most people in it are good and trustworthy. Child sexual abuse is a very dark part of this world, that is committed by a small percent of the population. If the rest of us speak out against it, we can stop it.
Please support our campaign to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sex abuse in New York State.