Marine Corps Base Quantico -- “The burden of preventing child sexual abuse should not fall on the children. It should fall on us,” said Rebecca Childress, prevention specialist for the Family Advocacy Program (FAP) aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, to employees of the base’s Child Development Center April 26.
The caregivers were attending training provided by Darkness to Light (D2L), a child sexual abuse prevention program, to become Stewards of Children. Childress and Kristiana Poole, an FAP victim advocate, facilitated the training.
April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month. D2L’s goal is to eliminate child sexual abuse for good. Its training aims to inspire adults to become proactive protectors of children by empowering them to make choices that defend children, take risks by talking openly to children about sexual boundaries and redirecting behavior that looks risky, and strongly support others’ efforts to prevent sexual abuse.
During the training, the CDC employees, who care for children aged six weeks to 12 years old, watched a video made up of survivor and parent testimonials and information provided by child abuse prevention advocates and other professionals. They then learned D2L’s five steps to protecting children: learn the facts, minimize opportunity, talk about it, recognize the signs, and react responsibly.
The facts are sobering. One in 10 children experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Child sexual abuse leads to a range of problems, including PTSD, depression, substance abuse, promiscuity, homelessness, criminal behavior and suicide. Ninety percent of victims know their abuser (30 percent are abused by family members) and 40 percent are victims of older or more powerful children.
“It’s more common than you think,” said one woman who attended the training. “It makes you a little paranoid.”
As 80 percent or more of child sexual abuse incidents happen in isolated, one-on-one situations, minimizing the opportunity for abuse means eliminating these situations. The CDC caregivers brainstormed examples of these situations that could occur in their workplace and ways to eliminate them—such as ensuring that one adult is never alone with the first child to be dropped off in the morning or picked up at night and changing diapers or soiled clothing in areas that are visible to security cameras. (Both preventative actions are current practice for CDC employees.)
Talking with children about body awareness and boundaries is another important step in child sexual abuse prevention. Parents should establish open communication about these subjects with their children in age-appropriate ways.
“Eight is great,” Childress said, explaining that parents should talk to their children about sex by that age. “You want to be the authority on sex to your child and the person they go to first with questions.”
Parents should use the proper anatomic names for body parts rather than nicknames—and should practice saying those names until they’re comfortable themselves. They should make sure their children know that they get to decide who touches them and that if anything feels uncomfortable, it’s okay to say no.
The fourth step, recognize the signs, is crucial for those who care for children in the absence of their parents. Children who are being abused may exhibit chronic headaches or stomach pains, emotional or behavioral changes, inappropriate sexual behavior and language, and use of alcohol or drugs at a young age.
The fifth step is to react responsibly when a child discloses sexual abuse or when an adult discovers it or has reason to suspect it.
“Remain calm and respond immediately—don’t put it off until you have more proof,” Childress said. “And let them know that you believe them.”
At the end of the training, the CDC employees made a list of actions they could start today in their new role as Stewards of Children. These included being more observant, modeling appropriate behavior, listening better and asking follow-up questions when children provide information.
“This is some hard stuff to hear but I find this a hopeful training,” Childress said. “You’ve learned that survivors can heal from abuse. I hope you leave this feeling empowered as well. Be proud that you attended this training. Prevention doesn’t happen unless you do something about it.”