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Courier Journal – Proactive approach can help to combat child sexual abuse

June 26, 2012

By: Dan Fox – President, Family & Children’s Place
Featured in the Louisville Courier-Journal on June 26, 2012

Click here to view article on Courier-Journal website.

Don’t talk to strangers.

For decades now this sentiment more or less sums up the philosophy society has adopted as a solution to the maltreatment of children. The assumption is that by teaching children not to interact with suspicious looking individuals, not unlike the perpetrators depicted on prime-time television, we are effectively reducing the risk of violence, sexual abuse, child abduction and the like. Aside from that, such topics are seen as taboo and uncomfortable in public dialogue. Many have even convinced themselves that these horrific tragedies do not happen in their “good neighborhoods.”

The fact is one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. This past year alone, Family & Children’s Place treated more than 1,200 new cases of child sexual abuse at our Child Advocacy Center.

Such abuse is common, it is devastating and it often goes unreported. The vast majority of cases of child sexual abuse are committed by familiar adults known by the victim and his or her family. In most cases perpetrators are not cloaked figures waiting in the shadows. On the contrary, they are seen as trusted authority figures and friends, making it all the more difficult for victims to avoid potential abuse scenarios. Silence is often leveraged by the abuser through threats of violence, guilt and humiliation. Many victims are either too scared or too traumatized to speak. The culmination of all of these pressures can make it impossible for children to be responsible for taking the necessary steps to prevent and stop abuse from taking place. And it is not their responsibility to begin with.

As the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has concluded with a jury finding him guilty of most of the horrific allegations against him, perhaps now is an appropriate time to revisit — and correct — how we as a community address child sexual abuse.

First and foremost, we must uproot this dangerous misunderstanding that it is the responsibility of children to protect themselves. The burden of keeping our young people safe, from infancy through adolescence, falls squarely on the shoulders of all adults. Issues behind sexual abuse are too complex and too sensitive for us to remain content with sending children on their way with confidence that they will know what to do should someone attempt to violate their innocence — this is only part of the solution.

We should teach our children about what is considered an appropriate versus an inappropriate touch, and we must equip them with basic understanding of preventative measures.

I, however, am advocating supplementing this with a more proactive approach — rather than reactive — that relieves our children of potentially having to practice those measures.

Rather than just giving a child a lesson in how to respond to a “bad touch,” why not also work to eliminate the situations where abuse is most likely to occur? Coaches, music instructors, teachers and others are slowly beginning to adopt formal policy and protocol that reduce risks of abuse; minimizing one-on-one situations, using facilities with plenty of windows or surveillance, accreditation from proper family service authorities, etc.

At Family & Children’s Place, we proudly provide (often free) prevention training to teach adults to better understand the prevalence of child sexual abuse and the associated warning signs. This 2½-hour session, Darkness to Light, is a curriculum used throughout the country. I would encourage all Kentuckiana adults, particularly those with frequent child interaction, to commit to this training. Recruit co-workers to join you. Schedule training for your Sunday school class or book club.

By learning about sexual abuse and how to prevent it, you can be a better steward of our community’s children.

If not Darkness to Light, seek out other ways to educate yourself. Abuse is preventable.