The recent disappearance of a young Tucson girl and then the sexual molestation of three Tucson girls has made our Community acutely aware of the vulnerability of our children. If you are a parent, you should channel any anxiety drummed up by these incidents into a productive examination of what steps you can take to minimize the chances that your child is sexually abused.
Unfortunately, many more children are sexually abused than parents might guess, based on credible research. And sometimes someone you least expect might be an abuser; most children are abused by people they know. A research based list of bullet point tips for parents that you can act on are contained at the end of this article. But before the bullet points, as a therapist, counselor, and behavioral scientist, I will first will talk about some trends researchers have identified regarding who sexual perpetrators tend to be, and the prevalence of sexual molestation/abuse.
Let me be clear: Public awareness of child sexual abuse lags far behind its incidence; child sexual abuse remains vastly under-reported (National Research Council, Understanding Child Abuse Neglect, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993). Most mental health and child protection professionals agree that child sexual abuse is not uncommon and is a serious problem in the United States.
Child sexual abuse may be defined as “any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. A central characteristic of any abuse is domination of the child by the perpetrator through deception, force, or coercion into sexual activity. Children, due to their age, cannot give meaningful consent to sexual activity” (American Psychological Association, 2012). You must understand that research and discussions about sexual abuse include touching and non-touching behaviors.
What are the characteristics and who are the perpetrators of child sexual abuse (statistics from the American Psychological Association website, 2012)?
-Most children are abused by someone they know and trust
-In most cases, the perpetrator is male regardless of whether the victim is a boy or girl. But, some perpetrators are female; it is estimated that women are the abusers in about 14% of cases reported among boys and 6% of cases reported among girls.
-An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, e.g., family friends, babysitters, childcare providers, neighbors. About 30% of perpetrators are family members, e.g., fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins. Just an estimated 10% of perpetrators are strangers to the child.
-Not all perpetrators are adults: an estimated 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18. Other data suggests in up to 50 percent of reported cases, offenders are adolescents. In 82 percent of accusations recently studied the accused offender was a heterosexual partner of a close relative of the child’s. Researchers estimate that between 96 to 100 percent of accused abusers are recognizably heterosexual. Another study found that almost half of offending fathers and stepfathers also abused children outside their family.
-Child pornographers and other abusers who are strangers may make contact with children via the Internet.
How prevalent is child sexual abuse and who does it happen to?
-The largest retrospective study on the prevalence of child sexual abuse found 27 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported abuse.
-Some Center for Disease Control research has estimated that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. You must understand that sexual abuse can include a broad variety of behaviors including inappropriate touching. You as a parent should educate yourself about the various forms sexual abuse can take (touching, rubbing, voyeuruism, etc.)
-Boys (and later, men) tend not to report their victimization, which may affect statistics. Some men even feel societal pressure to be proud of early sexual activity regardless of whether it was unwanted.
-Boys are more likely than girls to be abused outside of the family.
-Most children are abused by someone they know and trust, although boys are more likely than girls to be abused outside of the family. A study in three states found 96 percent of reported rape survivors under age 12 knew the attacker. Four percent of the offenders were strangers, 20 percent were fathers 16 percent were relatives and 50 percent were acquaintances or friends. Among women 18 or older, 12 percent were raped by a family member, 33 percent by a stranger and 55 percent by an acquaintance.
-Abuse typically occurs within a long-term, on-going relationship between the offender and victim, escalates over time and lasts an average of four years. Offenders often develop a relationship with a targeted victim for months before beginning the abused. Sexual abuse often occurs in successive generations of the same family. In non-familial child abduction, one study found two-thirds of reported cases involved sexual assault.
-Children are most vulnerable between ages eight-12. The average age for first abuse is 9.9 years for boys and 9.6 years for girls. Another study found 24 percent of female child sexual abuse survivors were first abused at age five or younger.9
Tips for parents:
-You have the right to (and should) look up the criminal history of anyone who works with your child (coach, teacher, etc). In Arizona you may go to the following website and type in a person’s name and date of birth to examine any criminal record they may have. The Arizona Judicial Branch offer’s this in what they call “Public Access to Court Case Information”. People consider this a valuable online service providing a resource for information about court cases from 153 out of 180 courts in Arizona. Link: http://apps.supremecourt.az.gov/publicaccess/
-You also should be aware of the sexual offender’s that live in your area, and this information is available usually through the local law enforcement agency. The following link is related to Pima County, Arizona: http://www.azdps.gov/Services/Sex_Offender/ The rates of repeated offenders is high for sex offenders, and that is why law enforcement keep a list of their whereabouts. This is not to say offenders cannot become healthy again, but this is not the norm.
-You have the right to ask any organization who might be in charge of your child’s welfare if they run background checks on their staff. Unfortunately, sometimes sexual predators work as with kids as teachers, coaches, camp counselors to gain their trust. Ask about what kind of background check they ran. Also, make sure you know which staff will be directly working with your child. Make sure you meet those staff. Be particularly aware of when you have older males working with young girls.
-When you are first checking out an organization, casually drop in on them unannounced to see just how well they watch their children.
-Make sure you have meet any parents who will be charge of your child’s welfare. Go over groundrules. If they seem too casual about going over these rules, rethink your decision to let your child be watched by them. I have seen too many parents shy away from checking other parents out, but you need to do this to ensure your child will be safe.
-Closely monitor your child’s internet usage. Consider the internet an “enemy weapons system”. I say this jokingly but with seriousness as well. You should make sure the privacy settings for your child’s Facebook account are set so strangers cannot lurk. Also, you have the right to have your child’s passwords to their internet accounts, and randomly monitor the content. You should also vigilantly be aware of what websites your child is going on to. Make sure you have computer settings denying access to adult content sites.
-Teach your children basic sexual education in a way that matches your family’s value system. It is better for them to learn it from you than from a stranger or a peer with inaccurate information. Accurate names for their private parts and how to take care of them (i.e., bathing, wiping after bathroom use) so they don’t have to rely on adults or older children for help will help keep them from being taken advantage of due to any naivete they may have. You might leave an age appropriate “body book” around the house so your child can when they choose, look at it and study the human body and understand it medically and functionally.
-When your child is the appropriate age, they should learn such things as how sexual advances from adults are wrong. They should know how an adult might try to touch them, and what they should do in reaction. They should also be taught about typical ways adults may try to gain their trust.
-Make sure your child understands they should communicate openly about any questions or curiosities they have about sexual issues. Let them know they will not be punished if they bring sexually related questions to you.
-Make it clear that they should feel free to report abuse to you or any other trusted adult.
-Be absolutely sure that from a very young age (3-5) your child understands where others should not be touching them. Talk about differences between “good” and “bad” touches.
-Because many perpetrators tell a child they will hurt them (or someone they know) if they tell anyone about the abuse, your child must be acutely aware of the difference between “good” and “bad” secrets. Good secrets are about positive things that we want to surprise people with (e.g., surprise party), whereas a “bad” secret is where “someone touches you in your private area or hurts you and then says don’t tell anybody”. You should regularly reinforce this distinction (from a very young age) to make sure your child internalizes how important their not keeping a bad secret is for their safety.
-Make sure your child understands that adults and older children never need help with their own private parts.
-Regularly reinforce to your child that they can make decisions about their own bodies and say “no” when they do not want to be touched or do not want to touch others (even refusing to give hugs).
If you want to read more about warning signs of sexual abuse, please go to the following scientifically credible website: http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/child-sexual-abuse.aspx#.
Much of the information posted here is taken from this website.