As young female gymnasts shared their horrifying stories of sexual assault during former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing, parents across the country asked themselves how this predator remained unreported for two decades. The majority of children who've been victimized never tell on their own. And sadly, in this case, the ones who did were not heard. So it’s up to us to spot the warning signs and listen.
This week, all eyes were on a small courtroom in Lansing, Michigan where Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor, was sentenced to 175 years in prison for possession of child pornography and child sexual abuse of Olympic gymnasts and other female athletes. More than 150 women and girls stood in front of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and Nassar to share their experiences of assault during their medical treatments—many spoke with their parents by their sides for moral support.
It's hard to comprehend how the leadership of USA Gymnastics could ignore allegations of sexual misconduct against Nassar for the last 20 years. It's even harder to imagine what it’s like for these parents who trusted a national institution to protect their daughters, only to learn its leadership was covering up for a dangerous predator. Some of these parents questioned Nassar’s practices, but then shook off the feeling that something was wrong—he was a celebrated Olympic doctor, after all.
"The guilt that I feel, and that my husband feels that we could not protect our child is crippling," one mother of a 12-year-old victim said in the courtroom.
This horrifying case and the #MeToo movement are sparking a national conversation about child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by men in positions of power, like Nassar.
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.
Prevention and warning signs
Know Who's in Your Child's Life
Since we can't always be right there with our kids, we need to know that they are always in supervised situations with trustworthy adults. Today many youth organizations have policies such as the Boy Scouts of America's "two-deep leadership" rule, which requires at least two adults on all outings. If your child belongs to a group with this guideline, make him aware of it so he can tell you if it's not being used.
Similarly, check whether your child's day care, school, and after-school programs have an open-door policy, along with either an actual open door or a window into every room where kids spend time. (Many classrooms have at least a small window built into each door.) Ideally, this should be combined with regular, unexpected visits by supervisors. In fact, for any situation that's innately private (such as counseling), there should be a door with a window, so you always have the chance to observe, says Johnson.
If you use a nanny or another unsupervised caregiver, don't stop with a check of her background and references. Occasionally drop in unannounced. And make it clear that you don't want your child left in someone else's care without your permission, since it's possible that a friend or a family member of the caregiver could have sexual- behavior problems, says Johnson. This is particularly important if care takes place in a home where other grown-ups or older kids may be around.
Get to know the coaches, clergy, teachers, and other adults in your child's world and observe how they interact with her. Show up to practice, involve yourself in activities, and volunteer in the classroom. And if anything feels off, talk to other parents and compare notes. "Listen up when they express concerns or uncomfortable feelings, and strategize as a group about how you can ensure the safety of one another's kids," says Kristen Houser, vice president of communications and development for the anti-sexual violence coalition Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which founded the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
It's also crucial to become acquainted with your children's friends. Pay special attention to friendships involving older kids, which can lead to vulnerable situations. More than a third of those who sexually abuse children are under the age of 18 themselves. In many instances, a child may not grasp that his actions toward another child are harmful, says Deborah Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop It Now!
Recognize Red Flags
Only one in five kids who have been sexually abused will report it, says Robin Castle, child sexual abuse prevention manager at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. (The majority of survivors wait until they're older to talk about it.) "It's very, very hard for a child to disclose, even under the best of circumstances," she explains. So you need to watch for warning signs. "If your child tells you that he doesn't want to be around a particular person or take part in certain outings, take him seriously," says Lee, who speaks from personal experience. As a child she was abused repeatedly by an uncle who told her no one would love her if they found out what she'd done. She kept quiet but tearfully dreaded annual gatherings at the family's summer cabin.
Some children may show physical signs such as unexplained urinary infections, redness, or swelling in the genital area. Other kids may have stomachaches, headaches, or sudden bedwetting. Behavioral signs can include angry outbursts, sleep problems, withdrawal, or a drop in grades. Sexual precociousness is another worrisome sign; perhaps the child starts making sexual comments or showing inappropriate sexual behaviors. Of course, none of these actions points specifically to sexual abuse, but they may warrant a consultation with a child psychologist or a pediatrician who's been trained in child abuse.
Above all else, keep this in mind: "If you suspect that your child—or any child—has been abused, the most important thing is to not investigate it on your own," insists Johnson. Extensive questioning may jeopardize an ensuing investigation. Instead, immediately report your suspicion to your state child-protection-services agency (find a state-by-state list at childwelfare.gov).
How to Talk About Abuse
If your child ever discloses abuse to you, you have one main responsibility: "Listen for all you're worth, and be loving and supportive," says Johnson. Incidents reported by children are rarely false, experts agree. There's no template for this discussion; it depends heavily on the child's age, the possible suspect, and how long ago the potential abuse may have occurred. But you should follow certain guidelines. First, have the conversation in private. Be aware of your body language: Lean forward, make eye contact, and get close to his eye level to help your child feel more comfortable, says psychologist Julie Medlin, Ph.D., coauthor with Steven Knauts, Ph.D., of Avoiding Sexual Dangers: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Child.
Immediately reassure your child that you believe him and that he did the right thing by telling you. Keep your questions open-ended ("What did you do together?" "What happened next?"), avoiding detailed ones that are suggestive, such as "Did he put his mouth on your penis?"
Unfortunately, some parents deny the abuse ("Your Uncle John would never do such a thing!"), blame the child ("How could you let this happen?"), or become hysterical ("I'll kill him!"). Such responses can cause kids to shut down or alter their story out of fear. Instead, reiterate to your child that you are not upset with him and that it's not his fault.
If there's any good news here, it's this: "Sexually abused children who receive support and help can and do heal," says David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Research has shown that the majority of sexually abused kids grow up with no significant mental-health or behavioral problems, he adds. The factors that appear to help include social support, strong self-esteem, and a child's understanding that she was not to blame for the abuse. Child psychologists and psychiatrists with specialized training can help kids begin the process of overcoming the trauma. This is why it's so crucial for children to speak up. "Keeping the secret can subliminally reinforce feelings of shame that can be harmful later in life," says Houser.
Though as a child I chose not to disclose my abuse—fearing that it would cause turmoil in our close-knit community—I thrived anyway. But I am well aware that I'm more fortunate than many people who have been through a similar experience. When I try to understand why I came out of the experience relatively unscathed, I believe it stemmed from my self- confidence and my refusal to take any blame. Both were inspired by my parents' unconditional love.
Preventing Abuse: An Age-By-Age Guide
Depending on your child's developmental stage, you'll need to focus on specific issues and address (or avoid) certain topics.
Use the right language. "Skip the euphemisms," says Robin Sax. "Call a vagina a vagina and a penis a penis." This decreases potential confusion and improves your child's ability to discuss sexual situations.
Explain what's private. Tell her that besides herself, her parents, and her doctor (and caregiver if your child's still in diapers), no one should touch her private parts. If anyone does, she can tell you and you won't be mad.
Give him ownership of his body. Has a stranger ever ruffled your child's hair, telling you how cute he is? Your tendency may be to politely tolerate the behavior. But it's a great teachable moment. Saying "I don't feel comfortable having someone we don't know touching my kids" models to your child that it's okay to say "no" to touch—even from outwardly "nice" people.
Be a safe refuge. You may think this is obvious to your child, but explicitly state that she can tell you if she ever feels confused or scared about anything and that you'll help and love her no matter what has happened.
Break the taboo around sexuality. If your 4-year-old asks where babies come from, for instance, give her a brief, honest, and age-appropriate answer. "If we tell a child she's not old enough to know, or to not ask such questions, then we've given the message that this subject is off-limits," says Robin Castle.
Reinforce boundaries. Support your child if he wants to say "No, thank you" to hugs or kisses from relatives. If your son is squirming away as Grandma leans in give him a kiss, you can say, "Vincent isn't really in the mood for a kiss right now, and that's okay, isn't it, Grandma?" suggests Linda E. Johnson.
Head off guilty feelings. Don't wait until you suspect something is wrong. "Kids need to hear that it is never their fault if someone behaves sexually with them and that they can always come to you," says Jolie Logan, CEO of Darkness to Light. In doing so, you help take away the perpetrator's most powerful weapons—shame and fear. Bathtime is one opportunity to talk about bodies and boundaries, says Logan ("I want you to understand that people shouldn't touch your private parts, or ask you to touch theirs"). Or use current events: "There are grown-ups who like to do inappropriate things with children, and it's my job as a parent to keep you safe. You can always come to me if you feel uncomfortable."
Teach Internet safety. Many experts consider kids this age too young to be online by themselves. Use parental controls to limit her access, and explain that people are not always who they claim to be online. Insist your child never disclose personal information, and ask her to tell you if she ever feels uncomfortable about messages she receives.
Ages 9 and up
Continue the conversation. As children near adolescence, their peers could sexually threaten them. Indeed, your child's own budding sexuality may get him into situations that offenders may readily take advantage of. Look for chances to talk about this; it can include brainstorming ways for your child to avoid or get out of uncomfortable situations with peers. Reinforce that it is never a child's fault when someone mistreats her.
Monitor devices. Kids can easily, and often accidentally, access porn through smartphones and gaming systems such as Nintendo Wii and Sony PSP that can be connected to the Internet. "We're seeing a record- high number of these cases in our practice," says Dr. Julie Medlin. "Most parents have no idea that their kids can access porn so easily in this way, nor do they understand just how much of a negative impact such exposure can have on the child's sexuality." Consult your device's user guide to enable parental controls and limit access to certain games with mature content and to manage Web browsing, chat features, and purchases.
Help identify trusted adults. Many children cannot bring themselves to disclose sexual abuse directly to parents, Sax says. So she encourages teaching kids to seek out adults whom they feel comfortable turning to when something is bothering them. She adds that they should continue to tell until someone acts on the issue. By law, teachers and school counselors must report suspected abuse to authorities, and in 18 states (and Puerto Rico), all adults who suspect abuse are required to report.
Where to turn for help
Childhelp USA maintains a 24-hour National Child Abuse Hotline.
National Children's Alliance has nearly 700 advocacy centers nationwide and helps with the process of reporting and recovering from abuse.
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has a free, confidential, secure service that allows victims past and present to get help via its phone and online hotlines.
Stop it Now! also offers a phone and an e-mail Helpline dedicated to sexual-abuse prevention. Its Ask Now! advice column features actual situations so people can seek guidance for their own concerns.