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Sex abuse teaching may help kids report offenders

May 20, 2015

Teaching young children about sexual abuse significantly increases the chances a child who has been abused will tell an adult, according to a recent study of children from the United States, Canada, China, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey.

Using data from 24 separate trials involving almost 6,000 children, findings showed that among children who did not receive any lessons about sexual abuse, four in 1,000 disclosed some form of sex abuse. Among those who were taught about it at school, the figure went up to 14 disclosures per 1,000.

Additionally, children taught about sexual abuse seem better able to deal with potentially dangerous situations. Children who participated in lesson plans were more likely to try to protect themselves in a simulated abuse scenario in which they were asked to leave school with a stranger than children who had no lessons.

The findings are important as the United States and other countries strive to prevent, reduce and stop the incidence of sexual abuse through education and legislation, such as recent action by the Kentucky House and Senate, and signed by Gov. Steve Beshear, requiring teachers and educators to be trained to recognize and report symptoms and indicators of child abuse.

The findings stem from a Cochrane review of data from trials of prevention programs in the United States, Canada, China, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey. Cochrane is a nonprofit global network of researchers and professionals that systematically reviews some of the best available health research.

Schools in the trials used several methods to educate children about sexual abuse, including films, plays, songs, puppets, books and games. The children, almost all of primary-school age, were taught about safety rules, body ownership and who to tell. In one American school, children took part in a one-hour Stop program (stop, tell someone, own your body, protect yourself) taught through role-play.

The study also indicated the programs were effective in increasing kids’ lasting knowledge of sexual abuse, with children remembering much of what they had been taught six months later. But authors also said it was difficult to prove how a child, even with the lessons, might react in a real world situation.

“Even if a child demonstrates they know how to behave in a certain scenario, it doesn’t mean they will behave the same in a real situation where there is potential for abuse,” said the report’s lead author, Kerryann Walsh, of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. “Tests cannot mimic real abuse situations very well.

“For example, we know that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child, whereas in the test situations, unfamiliar actors or research assistants were used.”

Regardless, it’s more information, more evidence-based knowledge that can be used to help stop, reduce and prevent the incidence of child sexual abuse and help protect children.