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Adults, You Can Prevent Child Sexual Abuse

Michele Booth Cole | 12/15/2011, 2:09 p.m.

With high-profile allegations of child sexual abuse surfacing almost daily, another scandal seems likely to break at any moment. Child sexual abuse is an epidemic in America. The Penn State, Syracuse and Amateur Athletic Union cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Out of view from public scrutiny are many other horrendous reports of predators sexually victimizing children. According to the latest study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 88,600 children were sexually abused in America in 2002.

The District is keeping pace with this unfortunate national rate. So far this year, Safe Shores - The DC Children's Advocacy Center has interviewed 261 children who reported being sexually abused in DC in 2011. That number amounts to more than one new allegation each day.

As just one example, let me tell you about Jamila. At age 10, Jamila had a crack addicted mother and a father who had sexually abused Jamila for years. It was only when a concerned teacher reported the suspected abuse to authorities that Jamila was finally removed from her home, placed in foster care, and brought to Safe Shores for a forensic interview. Jamila began seeing Safe Shores' therapist and eventually even felt strong enough to testify against her father in court. Jamila continued therapy at Safe Shores for more than three years, and during that time received clothing, school supplies and holiday gifts. Jamila has stayed in touch with Safe Shores, and recently told us she is preparing to enter her freshman year of college.

There is hope for ending the epidemic. But ending it will require responsible action by adults.

First, we've got to keep talking about child sexual abuse even when it's not in the headlines. The conversation should take place in our communities, families, schools, school systems, faith institutions, youth organizations, and legislatures.

It's important to know that child sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity. Most often, the crime occurs in the victim's home or home of the predator. Perpetrators are rarely strangers. They can be a trusted family friend, a respected member of the community, a parent, or any adult who has access to children. Predators work skillfully to gain the trust of families and to hide their evil intentions and criminal behavior.

So, adults must be educated about this crime of opportunity - particularly those people and institutions directly responsible for our kids. Safe Shores offers an evidence-based, nationally-evaluated training called Stewards of Children. It's a great starting point for teaching adults how to recognize, respond to and prevent child sexual abuse. We held the training on December 8 and plan to hold the next one in January 2012. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.safeshores.org.

Another step adults can take to prevent abuse is to know the signs of abuse and then watch for them. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry tells us that a child abuse victim might:

* exhibit a poor self image

* act out sexually

* feel an inability to trust or love others

* be aggressive, angry, or disruptive

* carry out self destructive or self abusive behavior

* have suicidal thoughts

* be passive, withdrawn or clingy

* fear entering into new activities

* have school problems, or

* have sleep problems.

Organizations that serve children and youth should have effective prevention policies and procedures in place. And parents and guardians should know what those policies are, and then make sure they are followed.

Finally, if you know or suspect abuse (a reasonable suspicion is all that's required), report it. In the District, call the CFSA child abuse hotline at (202) 671-S.A.F.E. [(202) 671-7233], or call 9-1-1. The hotline takes reports of child abuse and neglect 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Reporting is critical to stopping and preventing abuse.

Children are counting on adults to keep them safe. Don't let them down.

Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores - The DC Children's Advocacy Center. Safe Shores coordinates the investigation and prosecution of child abuse in the District, and provides child abuse prevention training and education to help end the epidemic.