Accepting reality: Putting child sexual abuse on our radar
In 1985, after weeks of intensive training, I started volunteering at the Los Angeles Rape Hotline (taking calls, accompanying victims to court, etc). After about a year on the job, it started getting to me. Every time a call came in I felt like the victim’s voice (telling me yet another horror) went through my ear, down to my gut and began churning up razor blades. I would get physically sick and could barely continue listening much less stay focused for an appropriate response.
During the same period I was meeting with a diverse group of Christian women who gathered to explore the Divine Feminine in our lives. As we stood in a circle and I told them what was going on with me, a huge wave of emotion hit, my knees gave way and I was in a heap on the floor. An African-American woman sat down beside me, scooped me up onto her lap and started rocking me while the rest of the women prayed, swayed and sang around us. After the wave of emotion passed, she whispered, “Honey, you aren’t crying for those rape hotline clients of yours. Something happened to you.”
Of course I didn’t believe her. I’d always thought of my childhood as happy, even idyllic. I grew up in the most pastoral setting imaginable, in a nurturing community among peace-loving people. “Such horrible things weren’t part of my life”, I told myself, “and I for sure wanted no part of being labeled a victim.” But that was the first hint, the first tiniest chipping away at the huge boulder of denial blocking me from the reality of my family’s secrets. Over the next months and years some of my siblings and I were compelled to do or die and we pieced together the undeniable truth.
Decades later, I realize our family is not alone with its secrets. Today my deepest prayer is that our grandchildren might live to actually see an end to the awful plague that lives like a cancer just under the surface of too many of our lives–hidden, undetected, unknown, unacknowledged, unspoken–affecting us as we mature in ways that can take years and lifetimes to heal and connect back to our experienced incidents of childhood sexual abuse (CSA)(1).
Image from colorlines.com
But here’s the good news. We also know things now that weren’t even on the radar for our parents. There is much we can actually do now to protect our children from CSA and that’s the point of this article. We need to put CSA on our radar screens.
And it comes down to these two things:
The adults in every child’s world must 1) accept reality and 2) take responsibility. It is not only a parent’s responsibility to protect a child, but the extended family’s responsibility and the responsibility of the entire community.
1) Dr. Anna C. Salter, a renowned researcher in the field of sexualized violence said: “We will never deal effectively with the problem of sexual aggression if we do not first find, examine, and deal with the myths we use to make ourselves feel safe.”(2) In reality, our children are not safe. Refusing to accept that reality will not protect them. Here are a few facts that may surprise you, a few realities we must accept:
2) One out of 3-4 girls and one out of 5-6 boys will be sexually violated before their 18th birthday.(3)
3) Child sexual abuse is seventy-five times more common than pediatric cancer.(4)
4) One in seven children ages 10-17 have been sexually solicited online. (5)
5) A majority of convicted sex offenders identify themselves as religious; the most egregious offenders are the ones most actively involved in churches and synagogues. (6)
6) Most child sex abuse cases involve someone the child knows and often someone the parents trust. (7) Abuse most often takes place within the child’s “safe world” of home, school, church, sports, scouting and other approved activities. (8) In 88% percent of the cases, the offender is known to the victim: a relative, family member, family friend, baby-sitter or older friend of the child.
7) The Department of Justice reports that the number of male youth coming to the attention of police for sex offenses increases sharply at age 12.
8) Child sex offenders can have many victims over a lifetime and tend to find their way into jobs and careers that give them access to children from a respectable position of authority. They become skilled at patiently grooming both child and parent to believe they are trustworthy before ever laying a hand on the child. They create a community image of altruism and generosity to hide their activity. And they are adept at convincing the child to tell no one.
9) Too often children who tell are not believed by the adults in their world because the perpetrator is a favored friend, respected authority figure, or beloved family member and it is unthinkable to the adult that they could do such a thing.
This excellent video from Darkness to Light also helps us accept reality.
It’s been said that the taboo against talking about CSA is actually greater than any taboo against actually molesting a child. So it’s no wonder my mother asked her sister-in-law why a little girl would have blood stains in her underwear. (9) It wasn’t even on her radar.
But before my mother’s death, she admitted the truth to my sister, and her truth-telling confirmed our surfacing traumatic memories and the world as my family knew it changed forever. We all need to accept reality, no matter how severely the truth rocks our world. Our children are worth it. When adults become brave enough to actually face this grim reality and stay vigilant to the present possibility, the risk to our children becomes greatly lessened.
Once we accept reality, what can we actually do to lessen the risk of a child we love being violated? As adults, we must be the ones to take responsibility for protecting the children in our immediate surroundings. Leaving the responsibility in the hands of children to “just say no” or “stay away from strangers” or “tell an adult” has not solved the problem as we once thought it would.
The following guidelines are offered to help adults take responsibility for protecting the children we love with clarity, openness, and calm rather than fear, judgement, and hysteria.
Know the Red Flags
If your child doesn’t want to stay over with someone or be cared for by someone, never force them to do so. Abuse may not be happening, but why take the risk?
If anyone, friend or relative, is more interested in being with your child than you are, that’s a red flag.
If your child’s behavior tends to become erratic and upset after staying with a relative or friend or babysitter, that’s a red flag.
If a relative or friend tends to create opportunities to be alone with your child and resists other adults joining the outing, that’s a red flag.
Tickling and wrestling are common grooming techniques for child predators. If you notice a family friend or relative who likes to tickle or wrestle with your child and tends to take it too far or keep it going after the child is obviously no longer having fun, that’s a red flag. Let them know your discomfort and ask them to stop. It sends a clear message to your child that you notice how others treat him and that you have his back.
An important list of behaviors a child may exhibit if she is being sexually violated, can be found here at the Department of Justice website. And remember, the law considers anyone under the age of 18 as a “child.”
Trust your gut if you are concerned about the safety of a child and are suspicious of another adult’s intentions. Sometimes vague feelings of discomfort or the sense that “something just isn’t right” can be an indication that something less visible is indeed happening. Don’t dismiss those hunches. StopItNow.org has a form to help keep track of the behaviors that concern you and guides you through the process of reporting.
Report your strong suspicions. Do not wait for proof. The law requires reporting of “reasonable cause for suspicion” by mandatory reporters. Every adult alive needs to assume that role. An “innocent until proven guilty” approach will never protect our children because it is rare that an incident of CSA is actually witnessed by another adult. Remember Jerry Sandusky? File a report of your documented suspicions and concerns by following the instructions here or by calling a confidential helpline such as Child Help USA 1.800-4-A CHILD or StopItNow.org at 1.888.PREVENT. Silence is not an option anymore.
Resist the temptation to take the bait that you are an unforgiving gossip monger, meddler, troublemaker, and naysayer-on-a-witchhunt who only sees the negative in the world and thinks there’s a child molester behind every bush. These attitudes (regarding this topic at least) contribute nothing toward the protection of children. And they keep those who are harming children from getting the help they need away from children. Every predator hiding in plain sight is greatly relieved when we keep the deep fear of these labels alive in our culture and in ourselves.
Let trained investigators investigate. Don’t take it upon yourself to confront the suspected offender directly or assume the role of private investigator. We are not expected or qualified to investigate a reasonable cause for suspicion and neither is our pastor or manager of our day care center or an elder family member. Don’t let anyone you consider an “authority” stop you from reporting what you suspect by telling you they’ll “handle it.” You can take action and file the report yourself (see #3). If you are tempted to confront a suspect you happen to know well, don’t. If there is an ongoing criminal investigation, this can tip off the suspect, and muddy the waters. Adult child molesters tend to be repeat offenders and masters of manipulation and deceit. You may fall too easily into their web.
Beware of the Christian do-gooder mentality. Child sex offenders on probation/parole are often required by the courts to tell pastors of their history, but too many well-intentioned pastors secretly welcome offenders into the congregation before carefully assessing the liabilities. Pastors should acquire and read the court records to get the full story, speak with the offender’s probation/parole officer, consult privately with known survivors about how the offender’s presence would affect them, process the matter openly with the congregation, and set up appropriate boundaries and accountability for the offender while on church property. Sex offenders admit to checking church websites to see if a child protection policy is in place and tell us those lacking any real applied policy are not at all hard to find.
Keep in mind that convicted child sex offenders are not monsters and research shows their risk of recidivism/re-offending is lowered when a group of wise, knowledgeable, and compassionate persons walk beside them. When caring persons with a call for ministering to sex offenders take seriously their responsibility to become educated before they take on the role of mentor and friend, that’s a good thing; though they should never be parents of young children. Three books should be required reading: Dr. Anna Salter’s “Predators”, Dr. Carla van Dam’s “The Socially Skilled Molester” and Pamela D. Schultz’s “Not Monsters, Analyzing the Stories of Child Molesters.” With a set of clear and strictly enforced guidelines for accountability and an open process of informed consent with the congregation, churches can become an important part of the solution. The Samaritan Safe Church program (9) addresses this, as well as the Stop It Now website.
Teach children as soon as they begin talking that no one has the right to touch them on their privates (anywhere on their bodies that would normally be covered by a swimming suit). Exceptions would be when they go to the doctor and at bath time, with permission. Teach them, especially older siblings, that they should not touch anyone else’s private parts, because they are private. Assure them they can tell you if anyone touches them or relates to them in a way that makes them uncomfortable or asks them to touch those private places. There are now many children’s books that do a good job of teaching these basics. And you’ll find more information here.
Model respect for your child’s choices regarding touch. Consider how a well-meaning expectation for a young child to “Give Grandpa a kiss” or “Give Auntie a hug,” sends a subtle message that she is not in control of her own body’s interaction with others. If she is not allowed to say, “I don’t want to kiss Grandpa” because you’ve taught her it is impolite or that Grandpa will feel bad, is she also not allowed to say “Stop it!” to Uncle Bob whose friendly play suddenly makes her feel weird? Learning to shake hands and wave goodbye are good alternatives.
Every now and again, ask your child “Is anyone doing something to you (or with you) that makes you uncomfortable?”
Ask for a copy of the child protection policy of all organizations that care for your children. Predators are drawn to places that serve children. This includes adolescents and teenagers. Make sure two important policies/practices are included: 1) screening and required background checks on all staff and volunteers that work directly with the children and 2) the “two adult” rule (i.e. no teen or adult is allowed to be alone with children without another adult present). If your church does not have these minimal practices in place, suggest they go through a program like Safe Church.
Give each one of your child’s caretakers a heads up that you are knowledgeable, involved, and on guard. This includes camp counselors, teachers, babysitters, coaches, friends and family members. For example, on the first day of camp or upon the arrival of a new babysitter, you might say or send a note that includes something like, “You will want to know that we have taught Mary about respecting body boundaries and that others do not have the right to touch her in any way that makes her feel uncomfortable. She’s to tell us if that happens.”
Further educate yourself on the basics at the Common Questions page on the National Sex Offender Public Website.
By now you may be thinking, “I share your concerns, I just wish we didn’t have to walk around being paranoid and suspicious of everyone.” But are we frustrated that we have to be vigilant (i.e. paranoid and suspicious) around bodies of water to be assured our child doesn’t drown? Around fire to keep our child from getting burned? Around busy streets to keep our child from being hit by a car? No, these are the facts of life when children are under our care; so we accept that reality, take responsibility, and act accordingly. And we freely share information on how to best accomplish these important responsibilities as the caretakers of children. As much as we would like to close our eyes and hearts to it, the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is rampant, indiscriminate and being committed right under our noses by persons we know and trust, including members of our own families. That too is a fact of life.
As a human family and as a faith community, our children are our most precious resource. They literally hold the future. Too many of them are in danger! Unless we change the culture of denial, apathy, embarrassment and silence all around us, especially in our churches; until we begin to talk and tell and study and learn and act to protect our children, their lives will continue to be tragically altered. Let’s commit ourselves to doing all we can to stay vigilant, act with courage, and give our children’s safety, rather than an adult’s reputation, the highest priority. That puts them at the center of our radar.
If you haven’t yet joined our Call to Prayer for sexual healing in the Mennonite Church every Thursday at 3:00pm, we invite you to set your alerts and join hearts and minds around the world for a few moments of your day.
Your questions, comments, and additional ideas for prevention from your own experiences are welcomed here below. Or contact me directly at bgraber@SurvivorsStandingTall.org
This piece was adapted from its original appearance on The Femonite blog under the title, “Not even on the radar: Understanding and preventing child sexual abuse.”
Definition of child sexual abuse: When a child is used for the sexual gratification of an adult or adolescent. It includes touching and non-touching offenses. Samaritan Safe Church training manual. www.scclanc.org
“Predators” by Dr. Anna C. Salter
“Protecting Children from Abuse in the Church” by Basyle Tchividjian as well as multiple studies including this one from the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/
“A Snapshot of Pediatric Cancers” National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/researchandfunding/snapshots/pdf/Pediatric-Snapshot.pdf
Janice Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, David Finkelhor.“Online Victimization of Youth, Five Years Later,” Crimes Against Children Research Center: http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications?NC167.pdf
Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center in a speech at the William Mitchell College of Law says 93% identify as religious. “The most egregious sex offenders–-those who have the most victims, the youngest victims and those who get away with it for the longest amount of time–are the ones most actively involved in their churches or synagogues.”https://vimeo.com/60690302
A disturbing interview by Dr. Ana Salter with a convicted child molester and youth pastor. Trigger alert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sEqWlJbEX4
The Department of Justice Sex Offender website.http://www.justice.gov/ovw/sexual-assault
Samaritan Safe Church training manual. www.scclanc.org
This story came to me from my cousin, who shared that her mother had told her that our mother had asked her this question.
Mandatory Reporting: “Persons who routinely come in contact with children in the course of their profession, employment or occupation are mandated by law to report suspected abuse of children. Volunteers working with children should be required to report any suspected child abuse to staff who are mandated reporters. Reporting is now required when you have reasonable cause to suspect that a child under your care/guidance/training or supervision OR under the care/guidance/training or supervision of an organization you are affiliated with is a victim of child abuse.” Samaritan Safe Church training materials. www.scclanc.org
SHARON WYSE MILLER says:
Jan 1, 2015
Thanks, Barbra. Well-done and important!
Jan 8, 2015
Thank you so much for your support, Sharon. Coming from one who has known me since childhood, it means a great deal.
SHIRLEY HERSHEY SHOWALTER says:
Jan 2, 2015
So carefully and lovingly written, Barbra. Thank you. I am sharing online.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Jan 8, 2015
Thank you, Shirley. Your ongoing support, friendship, and mentoring of me as a writer and survivor-activist means the world to me.
JUDY BARE GOODRICH says:
Jan 2, 2015
I cried for you when I read this, dear cousin! Thank you for for sharing.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Jan 8, 2015
So good to hear from you cousin Judy. Thanks for your love through the years.
HEIDI LOEWEN says:
Jan 2, 2015
Such attention to detail as only a Barbra Graber can describe for us -to act upon. Mennonites everywhere, listen up! Be the Christians you were called upon to be. Let the weight & burden of carrying secrets roll down like water off a duck’s back. Courage – a move to action is a way in which we might thank Barbra for her years of dedication. Thank you Barbra. From Canada with our love and support!
DARVIN YODER says:
Jan 15, 2015
This is excellent material, Barbra. So well done. One thing that caught my attention especially is the content of # 7 “…convicted sex offenders are not monsters.” I have been working with a male offender who is in prison for 20 years now. My concern is that our efforts to bring healing should be directed toward both the perpetrator and the victim. It is good to hear you say that the “… risk of recidivism/re-offending is lowered when a group of wise, knowledgeable, and compassionate persons walk beside [the offender]”. I desperately want to know that there is hope for offenders. Certainly we need to hear stories of hurt from the offended; we need to do all we can to bring healing to those who have been offended; we also need to recognize that offenders are often themselves persons who have been victims, they also desperately need healing from their own scars of abuse.
Thank you for this fine piece of work.
BARBRA GRABER says:
Jan 16, 2015
Thank you, Darvin, for your encouragement and for your work with offenders, such a necessary part to ending this plague. Although you are right that many sex offenders are victims of child sexual abuse, it is also true that most victims of child sexual abuse NEVER offend against another. It’s important to include the second part of this sentence along with the first. Your statement that “offenders are often themselves… victims” can be harmful and misleading left standing on its own. It can feed a false cloud of suspicion, especially around male CSA victims who come out of hiding, that they may be offenders. Male victims then become even more hesitant than females to break silence, report their offender, and get help. Actually, researcher Dr. Anna Salter points out in her book “Predators” that although early research interviews with sex offenders revealed a high percentage had been abused, follow up research using lie detector tests revealed a much less significant percentage. It was discovered that many offenders lie about early abuse in order to get lighter sentences in court as well as pity from well-intentioned Christians. A sex crimes prosecuting friend of mine tells me that too many pastors and “do-gooder Christians” show up in court trying to get sentences lightened, etc. and present real obstacles to the work of protecting children. You may well know all this, but I’m putting it here for others who may be interested. Three books should be required reading for anyone making it their mission to walk with sex offenders: The one mentioned above by Dr. Salter, “Not Monsters: Analyzing the Stories of Child Molesters” by Pamela D. Schultz and “The Socially Skilled Molester” by Carla van Dam, PhD. These books will arm you with necessary caution and wisdom and allow you to distinguish between the truly repentant offenders and those who are still minimizing their crime, playing the victim, and blaming everyone but themselves. Many convicted offenders tell researchers that they would never have stopped abusing and faced the truth of their lives had they not been reported and imprisoned.Thanks again for your work, Darvin.
DARVIN YODER says:
Jan 16, 2015
Thanks again, Barbra. I appreciate especially this quote from your reply: “it is also true that most victims of child sexual abuse NEVER offend against another. It’s important to include the second part of this sentence along with the first. Your statement that “offenders are often themselves… victims” can be harmful and misleading left standing on its own. It can feed a false cloud of suspicion, especially around male CSA victims who come out of hiding, that they may be offenders. Male victims then become even more hesitant than females to break silence, report their offender, and get help.” I certainly do not want to make “telling our stories” more difficult. I also don’t want to make healing and recovery more difficult for anyone, offender or offended. Rather, I hope we can work for the health of all.
The book I have been using is from Australia: “Invitations to Responsibility; the therapeutic engagement of men who are violent and abusive” by Alan Jenkins. You probably know it.