Safe and unsafe touches: Yong says that personal safety programmes teach children how to fend for themselves. Photos: The Star/Azman Ghani
BY MAY CHIAM
When the crimes of child sex abuser Richard Huckle came to light, Malaysians were shocked and horrified. Huckle’s crimes provoked national outrage, and left many wondering how he could have gone undetected for so long. How had he managed to continue his abuse without anyone speaking up?
“A lot of offenders keep the secret by grooming children,” Protect and Save the Children (PS The Children) founder Madeleine Yong says. “Grooming builds a relationship of trust with the community, the adults, and the child.”
The NGO is one of the few in the country focused solely on combating child sexual abuse. When Huckle was arrested in December 2014, PS The Children was called upon by British police to go into the affected communities to provide safeguarding activities.
“These offenders go to places where they can access children. They become volunteers and church members, for example,” Yong says.
Child sexual abuse is a complex and taboo subject, one we’re reluctant to discuss for fear of causing offence or embarrassment. But our silence fosters a culture of ignorance that makes it difficult to disclose and uncover sexual abuse.
“We need nationwide training of all adults about the dynamics of child sexual abuse. We had a case of a coach who was sexually abusing his runners. They were all groomed.
“Grooming puts the responsibility on the child. The child thinks, ‘It’s my fault.’
“The grooming process keeps sexual abuse a secret. And the hallmark of sexual abuse is secrecy,” adds Yong.
In P.S The Children’s personal safety programme, these illustrations are used to demonstrate safe or unsafe situations
How grooming works
Like Huckle, most sexual offenders groom their victims. In S.A.F.E. Children, a toolkit for the prevention of child sexual abuse, PS The Children identifies a five-stage grooming process.
In the first stage, sexual predators “create opportunities” by going to places where children are. By being helpful and friendly, the sex offender gains the trust of the child and the adults around. His goal is to make everyone feel safe.
In the second stage, he “targets the child”. The targeted child is usually more vulnerable than his or her peers, with lower self-esteem and is less likely to reveal the abuse. The victim has an emotional void that the sex offender can fill. Once he gains the victim’s full trust and dependence, he starts “twisting” the relationship.
In the third and fourth stages, the predator introduces physical touch and sexual touch.
“After he befriends the child, he normalises physical touch. “He’ll say, ‘Well done!’, and pat the child on the back. Then he goes from physical touch to sexual touch (abuse).”
In the final stage, the child is manipulated – oftentimes coerced and intimidated – into “keeping the secret”. Once shrouded in shame and secrecy, it becomes even harder for the child to speak out.
“Most children have amazing hearts. They want the attacks to stop, but they don’t want any harm to happen to the sex offender. The relationship makes it very difficult for a child to disclose (the sexual abuse). And it takes a lot for a child to disclose,” says Yong.
The onus is on parents and adult caregivers to step up. They must be aware of changes in behaviour and how to respond when a child reveals abuse.
“We advocate for adults to be alert,” Yong continues.
“We had a preschool girl who one day didn’t have dinner. And grandma said, ‘Are you sick?’ And the girl said, ‘I don’t want to go back to school tomorrow; there’s karate classes.’ And the grandma asks, ‘Did anything happen?’ Then the child disclosed.”
Yong urges parents not to react inappropriately – dismissing claims, passing judgment – but to respond calmly. Instead of closing communication channels, parents should be open to any disclosures of abuse.
“Parents should get training on the dynamics of sexual abuse and how to run a personal safety training workshop.
“Be alert, knows the signs, and know how to report. If adults are safeguarding – if there’s a community that looks out for sex offenders – sex offenders aren’t going to be so bold,” she says.
Signing children up for personal safety training programmes is also critical. While there is a compulsory personal safety component in the pre-school curriculum, Yong says that teachers rarely cover how to prevent child sexual abuse.
“It’s stated that you have to cover personal safety, so a lot of schools just teach children how to cross the road safely. They’re not teaching personal safety in terms of abuse. We teach personal safety in terms of sexual abuse but in a child-friendly way,” Yong says.
“One thing that we teach is ‘Say no, run, and tell!’”. We make it fun. We dance and sing. We ask the children if they like their body parts, like their eyes and nose. Then we teach them the proper names for their private parts to remove the shame,” says PS The Children training and education executive Ting Pei Lim. The NGO’s personal safety training programme is called Keeping Me Safe, and is modified for pre-school, primary, and secondary children. There are also workshops for adults.
In the pre-school programme, children are taught three basic “Touching Rules”. The first that no one should touch their private body parts except to keep them healthy. The second that if they’re touched and they don’t like it, they should say no, run away, and tell someone. The third is that they should tell someone they trust and to keep telling until someone helps them.
The children are also taught about safe and unsafe touches, which are associated with emotion. A safe touch makes a child experience positive feelings, while an unsafe touch does not.
“You get the child to discern, so they can decide what is a safe or unsafe touch,” Yong explains. “We do this as preventive, so the children have the skills to know what to do.”
Yong and her team at PS The Children are elated that Huckle has been brought to justice, but they know too well the stealthy offenders who still lurk in our backyard.
“We know many other local children who’ve been sexually abused where the offenders got no convictions; at least Huckle got convicted.
“But it’s the same thing here in Malaysia. You get the same local abusers here,” says Yong.
“Until the criminal justice system tightens up and the conviction rate is a lot higher, it’s still going to remain the same,” she continues. “You can have a lot of awareness, but until the system supports the child, you’re constantly going to have this problem.”