When I was in fifth grade, I begged my parents to let me quit music lessons. But I didn't tell them why. I feared what might happen if they knew what the teacher had done to me after saying he loved me and leading me away to a dark bedroom.
Suffice it to say that when my own daughter started lessons at age 5, I plopped myself down in the same room with a book.
Fortunately, there's a much greater awareness about child sexual abuse than there was in my youth. In fact, there's a much greater awareness than there was just 12 months ago, before former Penn State University's football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused of sexually abusing ten boys over a 15-year period. (Sandusky was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.)
That horrifying case has sparked a national conversation about child sexual abuse, as well as a significant increase in calls to hotlines from people seeking support and guidance about preventing or stopping it. In just the first two weeks after the allegations surfaced, the national organization Stop It Now!, which works to prevent child sexual abuse, experienced a 130 percent increase in contacts.
What many parents now understand is that sexual abuse is quite common. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Roughly 90 percent of offenders are relatives of their victim, or acquaintances such as neighbors, family friends, teachers, and coaches. "Child predators can appear to the outside world to be warm, caring, loving, and respectful," says Robin Sax, author of Predators and Child Molesters and a former Los Angeles prosecutor who specialized in sex crimes against children. "It is these very traits that allow them to continue their horrific acts."
That's one reason why the prevention strategies that many of us have heard before aren't very helpful. Expecting kids to sort out the difference between positive and negative touch can backfire, for instance, because sexual abuse doesn't always start out feeling "yucky." It doesn't necessarily hurt, nor does it have to involve touch. (Such is the case when adults show pornography to kids or get them to expose themselves for photos.) And suggesting your child "yell and tell" if a grown-up makes him feel uncomfortable can be a tall order. This is especially true when the offender is an authority figure who has worked hard to win your child's trust.
Unfortunately, children will often keep abuse secret because they feel confused, scared, or guilty. "An abuser typically shames his victim or threatens a child with what will happen if she tells," says Anne Lee, founder of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit in Charleston, South Carolina, dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse. It's important to encourage children to ask for help if anything makes them feel mixed up or confused, says Linda E. Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, a chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America. But avoid using the word should. By saying "You should scream" or "You should run," it puts the burden on the child. (And if you happen to share this advice with a child who has already been abused, it gives the unintended message that he was responsible for protecting himself, she adds.)
So how can you best safeguard your children? The best prevention involves having somewhat difficult conversations with your child but making sure they're age-appropriate. (See "Preventing Abuse" on the next page.) Also, trust your gut. "Go with your instincts if anything bothers you about someone who spends time with your child," Sax says. That includes the neighbor or person from church who is overly eager to help you out by babysitting or just taking your kid off your hands. Having a bad vibe is not necessarily enough to make a crime report, but it's plenty to justify your not allowing that person access to your kid. "In a school setting, always report an uneasy feeling to administrators, because they are mandated reporters and are trained to decide whether the situation warrants further attention," she explains. You are not liable, as long as there is something suspicious that warrants the report.