April was Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which means this is a great time to raise awareness about a topic our communities really struggle to talk about — child sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse is something that happens. A recent national study estimates that 42.2 percent of female rape victims were raped before the age of 18 and 27.8 percent of male victims were first raped when they were 10 years old or younger. We know that child sexual abuse has many long-term consequences if we do not take steps to address it.
The good news is that we are working toward preventing child sexual abuse. Maine’s sexual assault crisis and support centers, (in York and Cumberland Counties, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine) provide prevention education sessions to children from preschool all the way through young adulthood in college. With younger aged children, these sessions include personal body safety programs where puppets act out scenarios and ask students to help solve a problem. These problem-solving exercises help support children’s sense of body ownership and give them the skills to recognize and respond to confusing or potentially dangerous situations.
Additionally, we’ve realized that part of what will eradicate child sexual abuse in our communities is to focus on adults and their behavior. Prevention education directed at children will help them to respond if someone attempts or perpetrates abuse against them, but true prevention is up to those in our communities who are supposed to keep children safe — the adults. SARSSM has great programs for parents and concerned adults to work on recognizing and responding to red flags in other adults and to help teach children about healthy sexuality and healthy relationships.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is how we respond to child sexual abuse. It is important for us to have a holistic response to child sexual abuse where not only are we holding offenders accountable, but we are also supporting children and their family members through that process. The Children’s Advocacy Center of York County follows a nationally-recognized best practice model where representatives from many disciplines work together to conduct interviews and make team decisions about investigation, treatment, management, and prosecution of child sexual abuse. CACs are truly changing what it means to respond to child sexual abuse in Maine — and an effective and community-driven way that supports victims and increases successful prosecutions of offenders.
So, what can you do? In addition to supporting organizations like SARSSM and the Children’s Advocacy Center of York County, we know that it takes a community to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.
We have a few prevention tips that we talk through with parents, which we developed in partnership with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault:
• Set and respect family boundaries. Everyone has rights to privacy in dressing, bathing, sleeping and other personal activities. If anyone does not respect these rights, an adult should clearly tell them the family rules.
• Demonstrate boundaries by showing children how to say “no.” Teach children that their “no” will be respected, whether it’s in playing, tickling, hugging, or kissing.
• Use the proper names of body parts. Just as we teach children that a nose is a nose, they need to know what to call their genitals. This knowledge gives children correct language for understanding their bodies, for asking questions, and for telling about any behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.
• Be clear about the difference between okay and inappropriate touches. For younger children, teach more concrete rules such as “talk with me if anyone — family, friend, or anyone else — touches your private parts.” Also teach kids that it is unacceptable to use manipulation or control to touch someone else’s body.
• Explain the difference between secrets and surprises. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement in anticipation of being revealed after a short period of time. Secrets exclude others, often because the information will create upset or anger. When keeping secrets with just one person becomes routine, children are more vulnerable to abuse.
Together, we can build safer communities for all of Maine’s children, but it will take support and dedication for us to truly turn the tide against child sexual abuse in Maine. We can do it. Future generations and their well-being are counting on us.
Molly Louison, program manager, Children’s Advocacy Center of York County
Melanie Sachs, executive director, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine