When we think about keeping kids safe over the summer, we might think about sunscreen, biking and swim safety; or hiking, campfires and the first “sleep away” camp. But who are our kids spending time with?
When we think about who might hurt children, images of the stereotypical person lurking in a park luring children with candy come to mind. Teaching children how to be safe around strangers and how to access help from safe strangers if needed IS important. But mostly, the “stranger danger” myth keeps us from confronting an even scarier truth: children are more likely to be hurt, specifically sexually abused, by someone they know and trust than by a stranger.
Those who sexually abuse children “groom” the child and their family by offering time, help, gifts and special attention. Grooming is the process of building false trust and pushing boundaries—perhaps telling dirty jokes, holding a hug too long or making a child sit on their lap. Abusers confuse the child with sexualized attention, talk, photos or action. Sexual abuse can be verbal or physical and may include exposure to pornography or watching children undress or bathe.
One out of ten children will be sexually abused before the age of 18; 34% will be under 12 years old and 66% will be between ages 12-17.
We only need to look at recent headlines to know that those who sexually abuse children are found in sports programs, schools, faith communities, camps and homes. This is not meant to scare us from ever allowing children to leave our sides, but instead to empower us to take an active role in keeping kids safe.
So how do we keep kids safe? It starts with us—the adults. Each of us reading this article, discussing it with a friend, asking questions of our children’s caregivers, opening up the conversation with our children. It is up to us to keep kids safe.
How do we do this?
* Learn more. There are many resources available: Turning Points Network (TPN), local mental health organizations, online resources. Learn all you can about sexual abuse: the warning signs and the way abusers will lure children with false trust.
* Trust YOUR instincts. Listen to your gut feelings when someone makes you or your child uncomfortable. Be aware of someone trying to push boundaries, single out attention or be alone with a particular child.
* Establish open communication with your child. Let them know they can talk to you about anything, including uncomfortable feelings or touches. Teach proper names for body parts. Talk about their right to ask for help if anyone talks to them or touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Not sure how to start the conversation? Call TPN for resources. You can also find info online at www.turningpointsnetwork.org or www.stopitnow.org.
* Ask about the training that organizations or camps provide their staff. Ask about child protection policies which address the need for two teens/adults with each group; one-on-one interactions should be avoided.
Some may say you are being over-protective when you ask these questions. We would like to reframe that perspective. We cannot assume that every organization or camp has considered and created specific and comprehensive policies that protect children. We believe that every time we ask the questions we are doing all that we can to put our kids’ safety first and in doing so also give voice to an issue that for too long has thrived in the shadows.
Those who abuse children are counting on us to be silent. We are living in a time when silence about sexual abuse is being broken each day. Sexual abuse is a community problem that requires a community response to end it. Let’s work together this summer—and every season—to keep kids safe from sexual abuse. Healthy, nurturing relationships are what we want for all of us: children, teens and adults.