Working Together to Prevent Child Abuse

We continue to hear stories about child abuse and child sexual abuse in the media. Sometimes these stories make the headlines, and more often they do not. We know that far too many children and families are affected. In 2009, there were 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect involving 6 million children. Of these, approximately 8 percent were reports of sexual abuse. We also know that more than 90 percent of these children knew the perpetrator of the crime. Only a small minority of cases involved sexual abuse by a stranger.

What Can We Do?

As caring adults, we might wonder what we can do about it. Eliminating child sexual abuse requires a community-wide response. Parents and guardians, school professionals, other child and family specialists, and law enforcement can all play a vital role in protecting children. There is some good news. Child sexual abuse incidence and prevalence in the United States has declined 49 percent since 1990. Let's explore some of the reasons why and some of the strategies we hope to continue using.

In School

School-based programs can make a difference. Educators are in the unique position of having daily contact with many children. They are often the only adults outside of a child's family who have this kind of frequent contact with the child. With training and support, educators can both prevent and effectively intervene in cases of child sexual abuse. Educators also function as legally mandated reporters, with the responsibility of understanding normal child behaviors and recognizing behavioral and physical indicators of child abuse. As mandated reporters, they are required to intervene and follow state laws when there is a concern. To protect children fully, educators must be familiar with indicators, know the reporting policies and procedures, and be able to access resources for children and families in their school and community. In addition, school personnel should be trained to teach personal safety and sexual abuse prevention programs to the children in their classrooms.

Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Resource Center, makes the argument in favor of more reliance on education strategies, rather than criminal justice strategies, to prevent abuse and support the well-being and recovery of children who may have experienced sexual abuse. He believes that a community-wide approach that includes and supports school-based prevention education will be more successful than a criminal justice strategy.

At Home

Parents and guardians can make a difference. They know their children best and are in the best position to support and reinforce personal safety and sexual abuse prevention skills that may be taught in school. Parents and guardians need to acknowledge that abuse, including child sexual abuse, can occur. Learning what programs, if any, are being taught in their child's school is an important first step. Because of their close relationship with their children, parents are in an excellent position to detect indicators—for example, sudden changes in behavior, such as fear of certain people, places, or things, and so on. Providing early intervention and assistance can prevent negative long-term consequences.

Together, we can make a difference. “The decline [in child sexual abuse rates] encourages us to recognize that sexual abuse is not an intractable problem, but one whose incidence can, under appropriate circumstances, be dramatically reduced relatively quickly,” says Dr. Finkelhor.

Effective Programs

Effective programs include basic personal safety lessons that provide clear descriptions of safe and unsafe touch, such as “Safe touch is a touch that helps to keep you clean and healthy, like a when you are getting a shot from the doctor at the doctor's office.” Effective programs also include guidelines for children on how to seek help if they are concerned for themselves or a friend—with the instructions to tell a trusted adult, and to keep telling, until you get the help they need. Effective programs are research-based, are age- and developmentally appropriate, and include examples of how families can talk with their children. Parents and guardians need support and guidance in handling sensitive situations, such as responding to disclosure of abuse. Effective programs reduce abuse incidents, increase children's comfort with saying no, and increase the likelihood that children will seek assistance if they do experience abuse.

An integrated approach that includes schools, communities, children, and their families and that uses developmentally appropriate tools and strategies will provide the best opportunity to prevent child sexual abuse and keep children safe.

References

Bolen, R. M. & Scannapieco, M. (1999). Prevalence of child sexual abuse: A corrective meta-analysis. Social Service Review 73(3), 281–313.

Childhelp.org. (2012). National Child Abuse Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

Finkelhor, D. (2009). Prevention of childhood sexual abuse. The Future of Children 19(2), 169–194.