Advocate Offers Tips to Prevent & Spot Child Sexual Abuse
While these tragedies include everything from neglect to beatings, child advocate Michelle Bellon, author of The Complexity of a Soldier (www.MichelleBellon.com), says parents and caregivers should be especially alert to one of the most easily hidden and underreported crimes: child sexual abuse. Her novel centers on this epidemic, and aims to raise awareness about it.
"Children may be less supervised during the summer, or they may be in the care of extended family members so their parents can save money on child care," she says. "Both situations put children at risk; the former for obvious reasons and the latter because 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know the offender."
Child predators are terrorists, Bellon says. Like the terrorists we deploy armies to battle overseas, they prey on innocents and subject them to physical and emotional torture. The consequences can be devastating and lifelong, including post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association reports.
"Does this sound like anything else we have heard about since 9/11? To me, it is very similar to what victims of terrorism face, and what soldiers face after fighting wars," Bellon says. "I think child predators should be called what they are – domestic terrorists."
Bellon shares these guidelines from a number of sources, including the Centers for Disease Control, to keep children safe this summer.
• When choosing a summer program, ask about employee (and volunteer) screening and how interactions are monitored. A criminal background check is not sufficient to ferret out sexual abusers, since many have never been charged or convicted. Instead the program should look for warning signs in written applications and interviews. For instance, some predator adults spend all of their time with children and have no significant adult relationships. Policies on interactions between adults and children should include examples of appropriate and inappropriate conduct, and definitive steps for both monitoring and addressing concerns and complaints.
• Ask about the training. Staff and even temporary volunteers should undergo training to recognize signs of sexual abuse and to learn when it’s appropriate to report concerns. There should be a designated person to handle reports. Training should be required for staff and volunteers who come on board midway through the summer. Policies should include procedures for handling not just potential abuse, but also violations of the code of conduct for interactions.
• Ask about interactions between older and younger children. Some programs allow older children to serve as "junior counselors" or activity assistants. Ask about the guidelines for these situations, including whether and how long children may be unsupervised by an adult.
• Make sure children understand "personal boundaries." Teach children the importance of recognizing and respecting the invisible barriers that separate them from other people. They should be able to recognize their comfort zone – and that of others! – and know that they can and should speak up about setting limits. Start at home by respecting a child’s right to say "no" to physical contact, such as tickling and hugs. Never force a child to kiss a relative.
• Recognize signs of a problem. Children often won’t or can’t tell you what’s happening, but there are signs to watch for, including changes in behavior such as withdrawal or unprovoked crying, night terrors, bedwetting, eating problems, unexplained injuries, suddenly avoiding a particular person, and unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters.
Michelle Bellon earned her associate degree in nursing, and lives with her husband and four children in Olympia, Wash. She is the author of four novels, including "The Complexity of a Soldier," which deals with the issue of child sexual abuse.