Tips for Protecting Your Child From Sexual Abuse
Breezy Mama Elizabeth and I recently applied to become volunteers at our local YMCA. In order for our applications to be accepted, we had to take an on-line course that covered protecting kids from sexual abuse. After completing four 15-20 minute “modules” on-line, we – two mothers of three – were TRAUMATIZED!
First, the facts were startling. With figures such as only 3% of violators are caught, leaving another 97% to go on to molest their ENITRE lives, many attacking over 500 children each!
Then, there were the ACTUAL interviews with admitted molesters. One being your average neighbor-twenty-something who said he would do anything to be around kids. For example, volunteer at his church, coach sports teams, get jobs specifically working with kids, etc. Another was very involved in his community – in other words, also loved by everyone – and a school principal! After listening to their backgrounds, both were honestly two of the last people I would have suspected!
The fact of the matter is, that YES there’s that lurker in the park (like the awful Chelsea King and Amber Dubois tragedies) that also stands as a threat to assault your child, but the highest percentage of sexual attackers are not only someone that YOU know, but very likely someone you trusted. A perfect example given was the “coach.” Let’s say you aren’t able to pick up your 10 year old from practice, but the coach offers to give him a ride home. No brainer, right? Well, according to the actual molester, this was the perfect set-up for him!
To top it off, we also learned about older children preying on the younger. IN FACT, it stated that children as young as three and four (!!!!!) have been caught sexually violating other kids.
Watching ACTUAL young victims talk, one said, “How could my parents let this happen to me? They were supposed to protect me.” Stab. To. The. Heart.
Just how do you protect your kids? What type of personality and situations should you be aware of? And how do you educate your kids to be cautious? We turned to veteran sex crimes prosecutor, television analyst and author of My Privates are Private, Stacey Honowitz to answer Breezy Mama’s questions.
With the startling statistics of a sexual molester likely being someone the parent knew and trusted, what are some signs parents should look out for?
Most parents refuse to believe that a close friend, neighbor or teacher could hurt their child. Many times we see a person spending most of their time with the child, showing an unnatural interest and devoting much of their time to them. We often see signs such as participating in every aspect of the child’s life, constant gift giving, surprise little trips, and wanting to hang with the child in a childlike atmosphere, i.e. an arcade, amusement park, movies, etc. Be mindful of how interested that person is in your child, and don’t be afraid to question their motives.
I watched a video that had young victims saying how first their attacker had them do something like drink alcohol so they feared their parents being told of THAT, so they wouldn’t tell their parents of the attack. Also, the threat the attacker made, “If you tell anyone, I will hurt your family.” How can you explain to your children to still come to you?
For the reasons that you mentioned, specifically a threat against the family is a huge factor in kids not disclosing the abuse. That is why when discussing sexual abuse with your children you must include in your conversation all of the tactics that an abuser might use. Tell your kids that the abuser might threaten them; explain that this is just a way for them to keep the secret because they know that if you tell they will get in trouble. Explain that they will never get hurt if they tell, because that person will never be allowed to go near them or their family again. Clearly they must know ahead of time some of the tricks that these manipulators might use.
What changes in a child’s behavior should raise a red flag for parents?
Some behaviors in small children are nightmares, bed wetting, a constant need to be with you, a fear when you go to change them, and a general fear of staying alone with the person after they never had a problem before. I don’t like to generalize, because some of these behaviors are indicative of other issues, but sometimes a decline of grades in older kids, and a lack of enthusiasm for things warrant a discussion. It might not be abuse, but certainly if something doesn’t sit right with you, make sure and ask if they feel uncomfortable about something and want to share it.
What sorts of behaviors from an adult should raise a red flag for parents to prohibit that adult from ever spending alone time with their child?
This really goes back to the first question that you asked. Sometimes a person will pursue a child by engaging in behaviors that the child will enjoy. Constant gift giving, a relationship based on “being friends” and “don’t be afraid to tell me anything” coupled with an opportunity to spend “alone” time with them. Red flag number one, the person calls and communicates with the child by phone or computer without you being present, and constantly asks you if they can “take your child” out for the day, or that they would love to babysit while you do what you have to do. Most parents are thrilled to have an adult take such an interest in their child, but they must realize that many times there is an ulterior motive.
After watching one of the victims talk, he said he was ashamed, angry and often felt like lashing out. If a child is abused, what steps can a parent take to help them cope?
Most abuse victims do feel ashamed and guilty as if it is their fault that this happened. A parent must be patient and wise in the way that they ask questions. Never put the child on the spot and ask them why they let the person take advantage of them. Never make them feel that they could have done something to stop it! Please just let them tell you how they are feeling, let them lash out, and ask them if they feel as if they want to seek professional help with a therapist. Let them know how brave and proud of them you are for disclosing this, and that they are not alone. Please tell your child that because of their honesty the person will be punished and that the authorities will now take action. The most important advice I can give, be there with open arms and tell them they are loved and did not do anything wrong.
If a parent is suspicious of an adult’s behavior, what steps can the parent take?
If any parent believes that another child is being abused please do not feel like your are intruding by trying to help. Most parents later on say “I thought something was happening but it was not my place.” It is your responsibility to alert either a family member, school authority or protective services if you suspect some type of abuse either sexual or physical. If you have a relationship with that child there is nothing wrong with you questioning the child, and asking “is everything okay” or “do you need my help with anything going on at home.” Better safe than sorry is a motto that really holds water.
If a parent suspects a child who is not their own has been abused, what steps should they take? When should a parent call Child Protective Services?
It is your intuition that should guide you when deciding whether to call protective services. If you realize that going to someone in their family will not get you anywhere because it is a family “secret” or you are not getting help from the school, make the decision to let protective services interfere. You as a parent will know if you are up against a brick wall in trying to do it on your own, so pick up the phone and make the call.
I read that only 3% of child molesters are caught and 97% will violate children their whole lives, sometimes up to 500 children each! First of all, if they weren’t caught, where does that figure come from? And do you agree with these statements?
These figures are generated from studies done over the years of pedophiles that have been caught who have been interviewed about the number of children that they molested before they were caught. The studies are based upon the prisons who house these people with the general notion that we can’t find all of them, but if we did we could say with a reasonable certainty that those still out there will molest that many in their lifetime. It is basically an estimate of what pedophiles are capable of if never prosecuted. I agree that some serial pedophiles if never caught and have the ability to be that close to kids during their lifetime, probably would be able to touch that many kids. It’s sickening but true.
As a legal defender of children who have been abused, what percentage of female attackers did you come across?
Wow, great question. In my many years as a sex crimes prosecutor I have only had about 5% female offenders. It is becoming more common, as a matter of fact I was the first prosecutor to go to trial with a female teacher who molested her male student. Juries still have a hard time believing that a woman would commit these crimes.
In general — male or female — what percentage was the attacker someone the child knew?
The family member abuser is close to 75% while the stranger/friend is about 25%. We don’t have exact statistics, I am really basing that on the cases that I have prosecuted in the last twenty-two years.
What, in your experience, was a common set up that allowed children to be preyed upon?
We used to think that kids were preyed upon who were just vulnerable; We see a lot of crimes committed on kids who are children of single mothers. Some pedophiles know that a single mother is looking to find a father figure and that created the perfect atmosphere. Now we see a trend of everything. We see volunteers for organizations with kids, we see teachers in a classroom situation, or a tutoring situation, any time or place where an adult has an opportunity to really mentor a child sometimes creates the perfect storm for abusing. Now, of course I am not saying that every situation where a child and an adult interact leads to sexual abuse, I am just saying that now we see that abuse can take place at anytime. That is why I always say that there is no set “profile” of the abuser, just as you said, red flags that might draw your attention to a “situation” that just does not seem right.
Clearly we want to protect our children! It’s just a fact that we won’t be by their side every single second of their lives. There’s school, sports, play dates, birthday parties, etc. How can we educate them to protect themselves?
Education is the key. Never be afraid to have an open line of communication with your kids. Years ago this topic was taboo, even now some parents bury their head in the sand and say, “it will never happen to my kid.” You must tell your kids what to be careful of, and I am of the opinion that they need to know what could happen if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Do not sugar coat things. Tell your kids that if they find themselves feeling uncomfortable about anything while you are not around, that it is ok to go to another adult or to call you. Let them know that you are always there for them, if they need help. Tell them to be leaders and not followers, and that reporting something is the right thing to do.
In your book, My Privates are Private, what tips do you give to explain the difference between a “good” touch compared to a sexually violating touch?
My book is written in limerick form and describes where your privates are and what to do if someone touches you there that makes you feel uncomfortable. Certainly I could not elaborate on every kind of touch, that I leave to the parents to fill in after they have read the book. The book was written as an “ice breaker” because when I lecture, so many parents would tell me that they did not know how to begin the discussion of privates and what to do if their kids were touched. The subject matter is very delicate, and this book really opens the lines of communication in a fun non-intimidating manner. The book does have one line that says, “My friends and I know the meaning of molest: a hand, mouth or private, in, or on, our private or breasts.” I rely on the parents to elaborate on that and to explain to the very young kids the difference between, for instance, a sexual touch and wiping after going to the bathroom. The message in the book is simple: do not be afraid to tell, you are brave for coming forward and you will get help. The main character Betsy Boodle is the champion and she states “Don’t touch me there, you are breaking the law, I will tell the police when I make the call, and even though I am young and short, I won’t be afraid to go to court!”
What else should parents be made aware of?
Parents should always be aware of who their child interacts with, if their behavior has changed drastically, and if they seem withdrawn and indifferent. Please be aware that it is never too young to begin to educate. So many times I see cases where abuse happens over and over again because the child was afraid to tell. Education allows the child to recognize if they are becoming a victim, and also what to do if they think they were abused. Sexual abuse crosses every boundary. I have prosecuted rich, poor, fat, thin, black and white, professional and non-educated. The victims have been the same; This is one crime that is not tied to any particular socioeconomic group. I urge parents, do not be afraid to discuss this subject with your kids. In today’s society it is almost parental malpractice not to talk about this subject. If you can’t find the right words, let my book help, I promise you will not have a problem with this topic once you have read it. Be prepared to tackle the tough subjects — at least you will know your kids will do the right thing and report it. Be frank and open, not scared.
Stacey Honowitz is a twenty-two year veteran of the State Attorney’s Office, seventeen years dedicated to the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit where she is currently serving as a supervisor. She is also a frequent legal commentator who has provided legal analysis for Larry King Live, CNN Headline News, Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, CBS News 48 Hours, MSNBC, CNBC, as well as Fox News and Court Television. She has prosecuted several high profile cases in south Florida and is also a guest lecturer who speaks about child sex abuse, the sensitive nature of these cases, the navigation of the criminal justice system and the importance of frank and open communication with children about this important and difficult subject matter. She has provided important information for several years to both parents and children on the issues of child molestation and continues to send the message that the importance of reporting the abuse is the first step in healing. To contact Stacey, email: firstname.lastname@example.org