The light on the answering machine was flashing off and on when I got in from work. I pressed the play button. The message was both surprising and disturbing. It was from law enforcement. I can’t remember if the caller actually left her name, but the call was official. The message was closely akin to: “Hello, I’m with the Blanco County Sheriff’s Department. I am calling to let you know there is a registered sex offender in your area. The caller provided the name of the individual and his address. The call was a courtesy call simply to alert neighbors. There were no outstanding warrants for the individual’s arrest. He had served his time, but law enforcement sensitively thought neighbors needed to know.
Out of curiosity, I initiated a Google search to determine the number of registered sex offenders in Dripping Springs. There are 9. I broadened the search and inquired about the number in Hays County. There are 287. I checked for Blanco County. There are 15.
When it comes to protecting children from stranger danger, I think most of us get it. As a society, most parents have done a good job of cautioning children to stay clear of strangers. Sadly, in doing so, we have fallen incredibly short of equipping children to be alert for the primary threat they will face concerning sexual abuse.
Statistics concerning sexual abuse of children are horrific. Twenty-five percent of children will be victimized before they reach the age of 18. What a parent most needs to know is that the perpetrator of sexual abuse of children is most often an inside threat, not an outside treat. Family members, close friends, and people with whom children are very familiar represent the primary threat.
Consequently, we can teach children to protect themselves from sexual abuse by explaining the dangers in a matter-of-fact way. They need to know they have the power to say “No!” or to leave and call for help when placed in any circumstance where they feel uncomfortable. Children need to know:
- There is a difference between good, bad, and confusing touch. Know how to tell the difference. Parents should know that pre-school children don’t always understand the concepts of good touch or bad touch. Studies show that young children can understand feelings connected with extreme experiences such as being hit “bad” versus being hugged “good.” Young children are often confused by situations that fall between the two extremes. Most sexual abuse involves gentle fondling and is accompanied by gentle and caring words. Very young children may have difficulty perceiving this as “bad” touch.
- It is all right to say no. Trust our feelings of discomfort, no matter who the person is. Say no to unwanted hugs, pats on your buttocks, and touching that confuses or bothers you. Alternatives include running away, removing the person’s hand, and yelling “stop.”
- There are no secrets. It is wrong for someone to ask you not to tell your parents. It is wrong to trap you into breaking a rule and then threaten to tell if you don’t cooperate. It is not right for someone to give you a gift and ten expect something from you.
- You should refuse a request if it: feels weird; will separate you from other children; goes against family rules; involves a secret; or seems like an unearned special favor.
We cannot protect our children by sheltering them from the truth. We must teach them about the potential for sexual abuse, and prepare them to react assertively to inappropriate touch and other signs of danger.
Across the past ten years, I’ve kept a letter sent to me by someone who attended a “prevent sexual abuse training” workshop I presented. I have her permission to share it:
Note – Thanks for coming to say the things that are so hard- but so important- to hear. I thought I had dealt completely with that area of my life, but the restlessness of Friday night led to early Saturday morning writing which I would like to share with you. I appreciated greatly your sensitivity to the fact that this subject matter might cause stress. It’s nice to now that there are some Christians who “get it” on this issues. It gives hope to those of us who are surviving.
Today it washes over me like a gentle stream
No seeming danger lies beneath its almost still waters
Yet, there is ever the fear of drowning
Of being overtaken by what lies beneath.
It was all about them—
Their abuse, their terror, their pain.
Yet, it was all about me—
The isolation, the loneliness, the self-recrimination.
Will it ever really be over?
Will I ever awaken one morning to connectedness?
Will I ever be able to truly put my guard down?
Will I ever fully trust anyone?
These were the legacy I received,
A legacy that I must stay on guard not to pass on.
A legacy that I cannot entirely refuse to accept,
But one that I must choose to keep myself rather than to give.
I am bathed in that stream.
I look again for higher ground.
The potential for abuse exists when power and control are not equal in a relationship. According to Dr. Carla van Dam, child sexual abuse occurs when a) “there is a violation of a trust relationship with unequal power and/or advanced knowledge and b) the need for secrecy and, c) sexual activity”.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.
No child is psychologically prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two or three year old, who cannot know the sexual activity is “wrong,” will develop problems resulting from the inability to cope with the over-stimulation.
Some children who have been sexually abused have difficulty relating to others except on sexual terms. Some sexually abused children become child abusers or prostitutes, or have other serious problems when they reach adulthood.
It shouldn’t hurt to be a child.
All My Best!