COMING TOGETHER to PROTECT CHILDREN FROM SEXUAL ABUSE
The Five Days of Action are about raising awareness and inspiring and educating adults to protect children. Children are specifically vulnerable to abuse during COVID-19.
Research shows that increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children. The support systems that many at-risk parents rely on are no longer available in many areas due to limited contact during the pandemic. Child protection agencies are experiencing strained resources with fewer workers available, making them unable to conduct home visits in certain areas. Since some children are not going to school, teachers and school counselors are unable to witness the signs of abuse and report to the proper authorities.
The YMCA of Central Florida is dedicated to caring for everyone in our community. We gladly take part in Five Days of Action because it’s incredibly important for at-risk children that the people in their lives are aware of the signs and know how to respond.
Center for Disease Control Resources
- Remain calm. Remember that children will react to both what you say and how you say it. They will pick up cues from the conversations you have with them and with others.
- Reassure children that they are safe. Let them know it is okay if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.
- Make yourself available to listen and to talk. Let children know they can come to you when they have questions.
- Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.
- Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio, or online. Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.
- Provide information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Talk to children about how some stories on COVID-19 on the Internet and social media may be based on rumors and inaccurate information. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
- Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Remind children to wash their hands frequently and stay away from people who are coughing or sneezing or sick. Also, remind them to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow, then throw the tissue into the trash.
- If school is open, discuss any new actions that may be taken at school to help protect children and school staff.
The coronavirus pandemic can be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety—however, these actions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.
- Know what to do if you are sick and are concerned about COVID-19. Contact a health professional before you start any self-treatment for COVID-19.
- Know where and how to get treatment and other support services and resources, including counseling or therapy (in-person or through telehealth services).
- Take care of your emotional health. Taking care of your emotional health will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs to protect yourself and your family.
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid excessive alcohol and drug use.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
- Connect with others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
- Connect with your community or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, consider connecting online, through social media, by phone, or by mail.
If you’re in an immediate emergency, call 911. However, there are a variety of non-emergency resources available.
- Disaster Distress Helpline
- Call 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish)
- Text “TalkWithUs” for English / “Hablanos” for Spanish to 66746
- Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico can text “Hablanos” to 1-787-339-2663
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Call 1-800-273-8255 for English
- Call 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish
- Message the Lifeline Crisis Chat
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Call 1-800-799-7233
- Text “LOVEIS” to 22522
- National Child Abuse Hotline
- Call or text 1-800-422-4453
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Call 1-800-656-4673
- Message the Online Chat
- The Eldercare Locator
- Call 1-800-677-1116
- Veteran’s Crisis Line
- Call 1-800-273-8255
- Text 838-8255
- Mess the Crisis Chat
Find a health care provider or treatment for substance use disorder and mental health.
Know how abuse happens
If we don’t understand child sexual abuse, we can’t end it. The greatest risk to children doesn’t come from strangers, but from friends, family, or people the family trusts. People who abuse children look and act just like everyone else. They often go out of their way to appear trustworthy, seeking out settings where they can gain access to children. Abuse happens whenever a stronger or more powerful person asserts themselves against the will of another less-powerful person. Essentially, abuse starts as a boundary violation. One way to protect the children in your care is to teach them about healthy boundaries, and discuss your boundaries with adults and other children.
Schedule time to speak with your kids’ youth-serving organizations (YSOs). YSOs are activities and programs that your child is involved in, like summer camp. Ask YSO leaders about how they protect kids while in their care.
Here are some examples of what to ask:
- Ask them for a copy of their child protection policy. Does the policy include limiting isolated one-on-one situations?
- How are employees and volunteers screened? Best practices include an in-depth application, personal and professional references, criminal background check, and an extensive interview.
- Do older and young children interact? If so, how?
- Are there clear procedures for reporting suspicions or incidences of abuse?
- Are staff and volunteers trained in child sexual abuse prevention training?
- Can parents tour the facilities?
Create a family code of conduct—a set of guidelines that reflect the values of your family. Parents and caregivers are responsible for setting and enforcing these boundaries because they help protect your children. Remember, as kids grow, some boundaries and guidelines will need to be adjusted and/or added. Make sure to discuss the guidelines with your kids and get their input. Ask them what they think and what they want to include. Having the written list will make it easier to communicate your rules to babysitters, other adults, and programs/organizations your child is involved in.
Some examples of topics to include:
- Play Dates: Who will be at the house? Will there be older siblings? How do they supervise? How well do you know the family?
- Photos: Is anyone allowed to post photos of your children?
- Sleepovers: Will you allow your child to participate in sleepovers? What are the sleeping arrangements? These guidelines may overlap with play dates.
- Babysitters: How do you choose who babysits? What are the rules for babysitters? What are the rules for evening sitting vs. daytime sitting?
- Internet and Social Media: At what age will they get a cell phone or social media? How will you monitor use? Where will devices live at night? Discuss what information should never be given out online.
- Programs, Camps, etc.: What are the safety policies? What does supervision look like? These guidelines will overlap with your youth-serving organization guidelines.
See the warning signs
The signs of abuse aren’t always obvious, but they are often there. Sometimes there aren’t even external, physical signs that a child is being sexually abused. However, emotional or behavioral changes in a child are common. Examples of these types of changes include: physical aggression and rebellion, anxiety, depression, withdrawal, “too perfect” or overly compliant behavior, nightmares, bed-wetting, bullying, cruelty to animals, and a lack of interest in friends, sports, or other activities.
Offenders often operate through a process called “grooming.” Child grooming is the deliberate process of gradually initiating and maintaining a relationship with victims in secrecy. Grooming allows offenders to slowly overcome boundaries long before abuse occurs.
On the surface, grooming a child can look like a close relationship between the offending adult, the targeted child and (potentially) the child’s caregivers. The grooming process is often misleading because the offender may be well-known or highly regarded in the community. As a result, it’s easy to trust them.
If you know what red flag behaviors to look for you can take action and intervene when a child is vulnerable or uncomfortable. Here are some examples of red flag behaviors and examples of how to intervene:
Special Attention/Preference to a Child
Offenders are often seen pressing boundaries and breaking rules but are rarely caught in the act of abuse. When you see a boundary being crossed, describe the inappropriate behavior to the person who crossed the boundary. Have family rules about when and how adults engage when your children (great to add to your family code of conduct).
“We don’t let Jimmy go to the movies alone without a parent.”
Gift giving of any expense—large or small—is a grooming technique used to flatter children and their families into trusting the individual. If another adult is overly interested in your child and family, consider this a red flag.
“It is so generous that you gave Chloe this jewelry, but we only allow gifts on birthdays.”
Touching or Hugging the Child
Offenders will test the limits by starting to introduce touch into the relationship. They might put their arm around the child or ask for a hug to see how the child reacts. They may do it in front of other adults. If the caregiver does not intervene or object, and the child is uncomfortable, it can confuse the child on what type of touch is appropriate. When you defend your child from uncomfortable touches, you build trust with the child and dissuade the offender.
“It looks like you are forcing Annie to hug you. She looks uncomfortable, please stop. We let Annie decide if and how she wants to show affection.”
The offender will often listen to the child when they are excited or upset. They will start to build barriers between the child and their parents and friends by telling the child they care for them more than anyone else. Be open with your kids, let them know that even people they love can hurt them. Tell your children you will always be there for them and they can tell you anything. Do your best to listen to your kids, even when the days are hectic.
“Surprises make people happy. We don’t want to keep a secret though because secrets can make people upset or unhappy. If anyone wants you to keep a secret, tell Mommy or Daddy. You can tell us anything.”
Offers to Help the Family
The individual will offer to do special favors or help the caregivers to gain alone time with the child. Be sure to let other adults know that you do not approve of them being alone with your child without your permission or knowledge. Check-in regularly so other adults know you are watching.
Drop in unexpectedly on a babysitter. Stay for the entire soccer practice, even until the last child leaves.
Gaining Access Via the Internet
Perpetrators will often pretend to be someone they aren’t to gain access to kids online. They will pretend to share similar interests to gain trust, grooming them online. Know who your kids are talking to online.
Monitor what apps your children use and have limits to when and where they can use their devices. Perhaps at night, tablets, phones, and computers live in the caregiver’s room.
Respond quickly to prevent it
There are three instances in which we need to react to sexual abuse: a child discloses abuse to us, we discover sexual abuse ourselves, or we have a reason to suspect it. Speaking out can be scary. What if you don’t know all the details? What if you aren’t 100% sure? Report it anyway. Legally, you do not need proof that abuse is occurring to make a report, only reasonable suspicion. Reporting child sexual abuse is key to preventing and intervening in abuse.
If a child disclosed abuse to you, they have taken a big risk. What you do next is very important. Take a deep breathe and give attention, compassion, and belief.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Listen calmly and openly.
- Don’t fill in the gaps.
- Don’t ask leading questions about the details.
- Ask open-ended questions like, “What happened next?”
- Let them know you believe them and that it isn’t their fault.
- Don’t overreact. When you react to a child’s disclosure with anger or disbelief, the child is likely to feel even more ashamed, shut down, or change or retract the story.
- Say, “I believe you” and “what happened is not your fault.”
- Don’t promise that the information will be kept confidential.
- Seek the help of a professional who is trained to talk with the child about sexual abuse. Let the professional collect the details from the child. Head to FiveDaysOfAction.org to find Child Advocacy Centers and other resources in your state.
- Report sexual abuse to the police or to child protective services. Be clear and specific.
Townsend, C. Rheingold, A.A., (2013) Estimating a child sexual abuse prevalence rate for practitioners: A review of child sexual abuse prevalence studies. Charleston, S.C., Darkness to Light. Retrieved from www.D2L.org.
Finkelhor, D. (2012) Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.
Julia Whealin, Ph.D. (2007-05-22). “Child Sexual Abuse.” National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Materials are derived from the YMCA of the USA’s “Know. See. Respond.” copyrighted in 2020. Content provided by Darkness to Light. To learn more or get trained to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse visit www.D2L.org.