Protecting Children from Abuse
Headlines in recent months highlight an outpouring of sexual assault stories. Dr. Larry Nassar abused approximately 300 young gymnasts and other athletes at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. The Boy Scouts were forced to declare bankruptcy over victims bringing sexual abuse lawsuits against the organization. Many involved and caring parents were shocked to learn that their children had been victims of abuse from a trusted adult.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. In Oklahoma, the most recent OKDHS statistics show that 10,353 children were alleged to have been abused or neglected in Tulsa County and, of those, 2,721 were substantiated.
Shocking statistics, indeed, but they may be just the tip of the abuse iceberg.
“Statistics can be misleading,” says Maura Guten, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center, “because not all cases of abuse are reported and many victims of childhood sexual abuse never report or don’t do so until they are adults. At the Children’s Advocacy Center, about half of the cases we see annually are due to allegations of sexual abuse.”
Parents and caregivers want to protect children, but may be at a loss to know how, especially when the abuser may be a trusted friend, coach or clergy member.
“Growing up, many of us were taught to fear strangers who may harm us,” Guten explains, “but that’s rarely the case with abuse and particularly with sexual abuse.”
In most cases, perpetrators are people parents and children know, trust and respect. In fact, it is estimated that only about 10 percent are strangers, so a child likely has a close relationship with the abuser.
“Grooming is involved in nearly all sexual abuse – often in person, but also online,” Guten says. “Perpetrators may look for vulnerabilities like a busy, single parent and make themselves useful by babysitting, transporting the child to practice or spending time with the child so the parent can take a break. Abusers will often want to spend increasing amounts of time alone with the child. They may test boundaries in front of the parent, but certainly with the child to see what they can get away with.”
Being able to tell the difference between a potential abuser and someone who truly wishes to be helpful can be difficult. Guten says to be involved in your child’s life and spend time with the adults and children that they spend time with. Even then, however, the most involved parents can be blindsided when their child becomes a victim of abuse, so it is important to arm children without frightening them. To help children advocate for themselves, have open and age-appropriate conversations and continue those conversations as children grow.
“Encourage kids to talk about everything!” Guten says. “When they know you care about the little things, they’re more likely to talk to you about the big things. You can start talking to children about feelings, emotions and their body as soon as they’re verbal, but it’s never too late to start the conversation.”
Parents can also teach children to set boundaries with others. Help them understand about touches that are “not ok,” rather than “good vs. bad,” which can be confusing to children.
“Make sure they can identify someone they’d feel comfortable talking to if something does happen, even if that someone is not you,” Guten says.
“Talk openly with your child about their body parts and use the proper names,” Guten says. “If they can feel comfortable using these words, it can help them feel comfortable talking if something inappropriate happens.”
Having open and comfortable conversations also means that children know they will never be reprimanded or punished for talking to you. Have a “no secrets” policy with your children. Many perpetrators tell children that they will get in trouble if they tell anyone about the abuse.
Most importantly, if a child comes to you with a story about an uncomfortable situation, believe them.
“This simple act has long-term positive outcomes on the life of a child who has been victimized,” Guten says. “Children very rarely lie about abuse and if they do, it’s usually in an effort to protect the abuser. Don’t be critical of the abuser to the child – remember 90 percent of the time it is someone they know, love and trust.”
Parents should not interrogate the child, Guten advises. Instead, immediately report the incident to the Oklahoma Child Abuse Hotline, 1.800.521.3511 or law enforcement. Or, if the child is in immediate danger, call 911.
“Everyone in Oklahoma who has reason to believe a child has been or may be abused or neglected is required by law to report it,” Guten says.
As families look forward to the summer, many children will be attending camps, clubs and activities that take them away from home. While the overwhelming majority of these groups take protecting children very seriously, Guten says that parents can and should ask questions about screening practices for coaches/staff/volunteers. Ask about safety procedures and policies and training as well as asking about how they respond to allegations and what their reporting guidelines are.
“Finally,” Guten says, “something I am perpetually cognizant of: there is no need for a child to be alone with an adult or another child in a private space.”
About the Children’s Advocacy Center:
The Child Abuse Network (CAN) has operated Tulsa’s Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) for over 30 years. The multidisciplinary team of professionals center their services around the child and family, investigating abuse from one child-friendly location and eliminating the need for multiple interviews. This trauma-informed approach allows the team to immediately share information; as a result, investigations are expedited and children and their families can begin healing sooner. For more information about CAN or the CAC visit www.childabusenetwork.org where you’ll also find a number of informational and educational handouts available to download from our website that can help parents navigate some of these conversations and situations with their children.