Raising Richmond: Preventing the unthinkable

25% of girls and 17% of boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays. Now that I’ve sufficiently terrified you, let’s discuss what we can do about it.

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Ever since the news of Jerry Sandusky’s deplorable acts of child sexual abuse broke late last year, I’ve wanted to write about it. But whenever I tried to piece together my thoughts, I froze. My fingers, my breathing, my brain, everything.

The prospect of my child (or any child) becoming the victim of sexual abuse makes me…well…

I can’t even label the feelings stirred up by such a notion.

Fear? Panic? Blinding rage? Yes, to all of those and more, I’m sure, if I let myself sit with it long enough.

I doubt my inability to label my reaction makes it any less universal. I’m sure that those of you reading this—those who have children in your lives whom you love dearly—get what I’m saying. And I’ll bet you’re right there with me.

The more and more I kept coming back to this topic, attempting (unsuccessfully) to articulate my response to it, I just got angrier and angrier. I’m angry that it’s a reality of our world in the first place, and I’m angry that so many of us feel powerless because of it—powerless to fulfill one of our most primal obligations to our children: to protect them.

It became clear that trying to write or talk about the topic of child sexual abuse as a means to give myself some sort of peace about it just wasn’t working. So instead of fixating on what I wanted to say, I decided to shift my focus to what I am going to do. The time for hand-wringing was through; I wanted to be productive.

The only problem? I wasn’t sure where to start. I mean, my son and I had shared some vague conversations about who is allowed to touch what, but beyond that, I was pretty stumped as to what should come next. He’s not even four yet. How do I make it clear that this is an important issue to be taken seriously without scaring the bejeezus out of him?

Sensing that I probably wasn’t alone in that, I reached out to Denise Noble, FAM (Families Are Magic) Program Coordinator with Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now). I went in to our conversation hoping to get a few ideas about talking to my preschool-age son about sexual abuse that I could then pass along to the readers of this column. But I got much more than that. I left feeling educated and empowered. I hope what I’ve put together here—a handful of tips coupled with some expert insight from Noble– will do the same for you.

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Learn the facts.

“Child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate,” explained Noble. “There isn’t a specific demographic for victims or perpetrators. And I think that’s the hardest piece for parents. We all want to be able to visually identify who’s going to harm us so we can stay away from them. But with child sexual abuse, that’s much harder.”

With that in mind, I’m now going to throw some very sobering numbers at you. But I figure, if we’re looking at how we can best protect our kids from something as serious and potentially devastating as sexual abuse, sugarcoating doesn’t do anyone any favors. We need to know what we’re working with.

So here we go…

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays.
  • In over 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone the family knows.
  • As many as 60% of child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone the family trusts.

Those numbers,1 as Noble described them, are “earth shattering”.

“A very typical reaction is to want to scoop your children up and never let go. But,” she added, “that’s not realistic. Instead, you need to do your due diligence and be involved.”

Which brings us to our next point…

Don’t be afraid to do your homework.

Part of “doing your due diligence” is doing your homework when it comes to who is caring for your child when you’re not around—particularly with infants and young toddlers; according to Noble, children under three are the most vulnerable to child maltreatment across the board.

When sussing out childcare situations, “You want to see transparency,” said Noble. Remember: you have the right to know.

Ask the daycare center about their abuse prevention policies and if they do background checks. Are they ok with you stopping by unannounced? How do they respond if you actually do?

Find out how long church nursery workers attend services before being allowed to help with childcare and ask what the volunteer application process entails.

Even if you’re just leaving your child with a friend for a couple hours, ask who else will be there and what the plan is for the day.

Granted, being assertive about getting these questions answered can make it seem like you don’t trust anyone. But, as Noble put it, “Sometimes as parents we just need to err on the side of caution and well-being for our child. And I think that it’s also helpful for older kids to hear and know that everywhere they go, you are making sure, to the best of your ability, they’re as safe as can be. “

Start the conversation early.

Facilitating and nurturing honest, open communication with your kids is key in preventing child sexual abuse. According to Noble, that communication happens along two tracks of conversation, starting as soon as toddlerhood and preschool, if not earlier.

“The first track of conversation is just healthy communication and healthy sexual development. Meaning, you’re going to teach your children the correct anatomical names for all of their body parts.”

The second track involves talking with kids about good touch versus bad touch. Noble pointed out that this is something most parents do automatically when we use phrases like “gentle hands” or “nice hands” as our children learn to interact with others.

“I think that’s also a good time to give kids language around the idea that some touches don’t feel good, “ Noble explained. “As in, ‘That didn’t feel good when you hit Katie. That hurt her. We don’t hurt people, and we don’t let people hurt you.’ You can have those conversations that are very natural, but they also set a foundation for you.”

Empower; don’t scare

As your kids get older, the focus and content of your conversations about sexual abuse will change. Around the time kids hit elementary school (ages four, five, and six), they’ll begin to understand the idea of “appropriate boundaries”—boundaries that some people could choose to cross. It’s essential (and empowering) for them to know what to do should that situation present itself. But it’s also essential that we share that knowledge with them in a way that doesn’t leave them afraid to venture out into the world and be around other people.

“I usually equate it to how you prepare them for a fire in your house,” said Noble. “Fires are scary. Unfortunately fires can be devastating. You never want it to happen, but you’re discussing it with your family. That’s empowering to children.”

The key is to keep it simple and—more than anything else—not to make the child feel in any way responsible for the situation. In fact, you can go with something like this, as was modeled for me by Noble during our conversation:

“There may be some people–and it could even be people we love—who, when they touch you, it makes you feel uncomfortable. You have the right to say no. You can come and tell Mommy2 right away; you can come and tell Daddy. You’ve done nothing wrong.’”

Trust (and respect) those instincts…yours and theirs

You’re given parental instincts for a reason. If something feels “off” with your child and you suspect that his or her relationship with an adult or an older kid is the cause, don’t ignore that feeling—even if you’ve done your homework, had all the necessary conversations, and everything looks right “on paper.” You have the right to act on that suspicion. Period.

And just as you trust your instincts, you need to trust your children’s as well; their feelings shouldn’t be trivialized just because of their age. While hugging his uncle goodbye might be the “polite” response, if your child resists and you guilt him into doing it anyway, you’re potentially sending a pretty powerful message—and probably not the one you want to be putting out there.

“Their gut instincts and their feelings have to be respected,” said Noble. “When you force that hug—which is a very typical, common response–you’re dis-empowering the child. You’re saying, ‘Well, I hear you, but I’m still going to make you do it anyway.’”

She went on to add, “Children naturally go through some separation anxiety or some stranger anxiety, but I think, at times, certain people can feel ‘different’ for them. We have to pay attention to that.”

And why wouldn’t you? Your child’s future well-being could be at stake. That trumps everything else.

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To learn more about what you can do to help stop child abuse of all kinds, please visit Greater Richmond SCAN’s website. There you’ll find information about SCAN’s local child abuse prevention efforts, as well as links to resources and agencies dedicated to educating the public on how to prevent, recognize, and support victims of abuse.

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Footnotes

  1. These statistics are from Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse. SCAN uses Darkness to Light’s resources in their Stewards of Children training, a program focused on educating and empowering adult to do what they can to stop child sexual abuse. Check out their 7 Steps to Protecting Our Children from Sexual Abuse to learn more. 
  2. According to additional statistics provided by Darkness to Light, children who disclose sexual abuse often tell a trusted adult rather than a parent. Help your children identify other people they can go to should something like this happen to them—a teacher, the parent of a close friend, a coach, people your family deems “safe.” 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is managing editor of RVAFamily. When she’s not oversharing her parenting struggles and successes, you can find her raising a preschool-aged boy and watching 90s television shows.

10 comments on Raising Richmond: Preventing the unthinkable

  1. Kristi on said:

    Excellent information, Val. This is very timely for me, with my boy starting kindergarten in a new school with new teachers and new friends. Thank you!

  2. Thanks, Kristi! I’m glad to help. JR getting older was also one of the reasons I decided to talk to Denise. He’s going to start participating activities that involve him being away from us a bit more–I wanted to make sure I was going into that new phase as informed as possible.

  3. Bun King on said:

    If those statistics are true, you can’t trust anyone, period.

  4. Anon E. Mouse on said:

    I don’t believe them and if they are true, why? We’ve redefined abuse in this country to include even the appearance or suspicion of abuse. A spank is considered abuse, hugs can get you arrested, teachers are afraid NOT to report abuse and social workers have become part of our family structure. Abuse is a terrible thing, but we’ve cast such a wide net we sweep up the innocent along with the guilty. Children can and do accuse their parents of abuse because, well they are children and they don’t realize the consequences of their actions. Wives accuse their husband and husbands their wives. There is nothing too outlandish not to be believed. Real abuse is a terrible thing. Ripping apart families is also a form of abuse. Once accused the stain never quite leaves. Meanwhile parents live in fear of both well meaning busibuddies and true perverts. It is hard to know which to fear most.

  5. One of my son’s best friends got reprimanded (note sent home to his parents, although WE didn’t get any notice) for *touching* my son…grabbing his hands, I think. His mom freaked out when she got the note, thinking he’d done something awful, and he was mortified for getting into trouble (his mom’s a teacher, in fact), so she had to calm him down to find out what had happened. When she asked me if I knew about it, I felt so bad for them having had this treatment, and my son almost didn’t remember his friend even doing anything. It’s such a strange place for us to be in with expectations of personal space and relationships and kids and parents…I just try to be communicative about expectations and appropriate behavior, because that’s all I can do.

    And heaven help the person who really does mess with any child of mine.

  6. I don’t think acting on instinct or suspicion necessarily equates going to the police or notifying authorities–although in some situations it’s CERTAINLY warranted. It could be that someone’s behavior *is* actually innocent–it just makes the child and/or parent uncomfortable. They have the right to feel uncomfortable and they also have the right to seek out a way to separate themselves from that behavior.

    Jeb, I’m surprised the teacher didn’t involve you and your son more in that situation. If he/she saw it as significant enough to require a note home, you would think a conversation would’ve been necessary as well.

  7. Anonymous on said:

    These numbers are accurate, despite what some of you might want to believe.
    I grew up in a reasonably well-informed, upper-middle class family from the ‘burbs who were involved in our lives as PTA, trip chaperones, etc. Despite that fact, me and my 3 siblings (with an age range of 20 years from youngest to oldest) all managed to experience physical sexual abuse from different people, some abusers were related to us and some not. Think of that statistically, that’s 4 of 4 children in my family, all victims of different perpetrators at different times and in different situations.
    It’s important to keep in mind that, just like other types of violence, the frequency of sexual abuse for children varies from place to place. This means that based on your experience and where you experienced it, you may find it hard to believe these high numbers. However, that may be because you’ve lived in regions where instance of this particular crime is low. States like Virginia have a lower reported sexual abuse instance as opposed to states like Florida, where I grew up.

  8. Anonymous on said:

    *”I grew up with reasonably well-informed, upper-middle class parents from the ‘burbs”

  9. Valerie, we were really surprised as well after the fact but since the mother of the other boy is a friend of ours (we’re all in the same Cub Scout den), and she brought it up so apologetically, our reaction was honestly to just laugh it off, express how weird the school can be, and beg her to not fret over it. Maybe that wasn’t the best plan, but it’s where we left it.

  10. Valerie Catrow on said:

    Anonymous, thank you for sharing that with us. I’m so sorry this happened to you–and to your siblings.

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