Two things you can do to prevent child sexual abuse

Last week, I attended the National Children’s Alliance Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. During several interesting sessions about child sexual abuse and conversations with colleagues from around the country, I again was thinking about how to respond to the inevitable question of, “But what can I do to help prevent and respond to child sexual abuse?”

When people learn that I work for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, they generally ask two questions: “Does sexual violence really happen in Maine?” and “What can I do to help?” Especially when there are children or older adults involved, people tend to pay a particular amount of attention.

The first question is easy to answer: Yes, sexual violence happens in Maine. About 1 in 5 Mainers will experience rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime. It’s easy to talk about numbers because people are comfortable with numbers.

People, however, are less comfortable with behavior change, which makes the second question more difficult to answer. It involves examining our own behavior, acknowledging our own discomforts, and knowing when to ask for help. A few thoughts I had during the conference and conversations with various colleagues:

Recognizing a child’s body is her/his own. When I say this to people, their immediate reaction is, “Of course my kid’s body is his/her own!” Sometimes, though, in an effort to make auntie so-and-so feel included, we say things like, “Give Aunt Cara a hug and a kiss goodbye!” What if Sally doesn’t want to give Aunt Cara a hug and a kiss goodbye? This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but what this inevitably says to Sally is, “You have to hug or kiss someone even if you don’t want to because a grownup said so.”

Now, if Sally happens to be spunkier than the average kid, she may flat out deny the hug/kiss request and go on playing with her Legos. However, some kids may not feel so spunky. Saying to Sally, “If you don’t want to hug Aunt Cara, that’s OK, but let’s say goodbye,” helps to teach her manners but doesn’t put her in a position of having to hug or kiss someone she doesn’t want to hug or kiss. It helps children like Sally recognize and respect boundaries – their own and others. We don’t make the teens in our lives hug or kiss people they don’t want to. In fact, we actively tell them they don’t have to! Why is a 3-year old any different? This small aspect of our behavior with young children can help address the broader issue of child sexual abuse.

If you see something, say something. A lot of folks get into a “not my business” frame of mind when it comes to sexual abuse. This frame of mind, often called the bystander effect, is why we read stories about people who witness a violent crime and don’t intervene or call the police.

The thing is, any type of violent crime is everyone’s business. And when it relates to those who can’t speak up for themselves, it’s even more important that if we suspect something, we say something.

This is an especially important point for those who work with children on a regular basis. During the week of July 14, St. Joseph’s college is hosting an education symposium about child sexual abuse signs, symptoms and reporting. Speakers include Sen. Bill Diamond, Attorney General Janet Mills, Maine State Police Lt. Glenn Lang, former Assistant District Attorney Alan Kelley, and others.

I’ll be speaking about child sexual abuse response, prevention, and the importance of services such as Children’s Advocacy Centers and sexual assault support advocates. The information presented is intended for teachers and administrators and will include topics such as mandatory reporting and best practices for addressing a student/child who may be a victim. The symposium will be helpful for educators who have a chance to intervene in a potentially abusive situation. Both graduate and continuing education credits are available. For more information, or to register, click here.

The culture of silence around child sexual abuse still exists, though it’s getting better. For more information on how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse, visit the Maine Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers, a program of MECASA.

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