April 19, 2014

Protecting your child from sexual abuse

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By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

‘The number one prevention tool is listening because not only are you available... you will not necessarily judge what they’re saying, but be there for them no matter what the topic is.’ — Johanna Straavaldsen of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

The first time she was sexually abused, “Jennifer” was 3 years old.

The offender was an uncle, entrusted as a babysitter. He continued to molest her until she was 13. Then he moved out of state.

When Jennifer was 14, she began cutting herself.

“I literally wanted to peel my flesh off because of how disgusting I felt inside,” she said.

When she was 15, she began contemplating suicide. She went as far as getting a rope and a chair before stopping and calling a friend.

A church-sponsored mission trip saved her life. She met two girls who had also been sexually abused. One was a cutter; the other was bulimic.

“Seeing other girls that had the same experience, and to be able to help someone else that had gone through that, gave me hope,” she said.

“Jennifer” is an assumed name for a woman interviewed by the Observer who wished to remain anonymous.

She is now 27. She is married and has a child. She is friendly, thoughtful and intelligent. But deep inside herself she carries a pain that time cannot erase.

“It still hurts today,” she said. “I still to this day struggle with self-worth and self-esteem and I wonder if it stems from that.”

Unfortunately, Jennifer’s story is not an isolated incident.

“We know that about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18,” said Johanna Straavaldsen, a SAFE-T (Sexual Abuse Free Environment for Teens) coordinator and trainer at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. “We also know that only a small percentage of kids are making disclosures of abuse—about 10 percent will disclose abuse in their childhood. They may go on to disclose abuse later in life, but by and large when they’re children they’re not making disclosures.”

Such sobering facts about child sexual abuse were among the information presented by Straavaldsen at a May 2 meeting at Williston Central School that was aimed at educating parents about ways to identify and protect children from sexual abuse.

Straavaldsen said that the disturbingly high rate of child sexual abuse at both the national and local levels led Vermont in March 2009 to pass Act 1, a child protection law related to improving the state’s sexual abuse response system.

“That’s why we’re doing this—that’s why Act 1 was passed—and the hopeful piece is, at least in Vermont, we are taking a proactive step to hopefully reduce some of these numbers,” Straavaldsen said.

Chris Ford, a Direction Center counselor at WCS, suggested that the numbers cited by Straavaldsen might appear high to a general public used to the forms of sexual abuse televised on the nightly news.

“Sometimes we only think of the severe or most disturbing type of abuse, but when you begin to learn what sexual abuse really is, you can understand the statistics a little better,” Ford said.

Contrary to the media-perpetuated perception of sexual abuse as acts of random carnal violence, Straavaldsen noted that only 10 percent of national—and 2 percent of Vermont—cases of sexual abuse are committed by strangers to the victim.

Straavaldsen cautioned that perpetrators can gain access to a child through a process known as “grooming,” in which a sexual offender gains the trust of a child and his or her parents prior to committing a sex crime.

“Grooming looks a lot like developing a healthy relationship,” she warned.

While the grooming tactics of sexual predators are often difficult to identify, Straavaldsen said the best way to protect your child against sexual abuse is simple: listen.

“The number one prevention tool is listening,” Straavaldsen said. “Because not only are you available, but you’re communicating through your listening that you’re available to listen, and that you will not necessarily judge what they’re saying, but be there for them no matter what the topic is.”

Sue Peters, a parent who attended the May 2 meeting, agreed with Straavaldsen.

“Ask (your child) about their day,” she suggested. “‘What did you have for lunch?’ may start a whole conversation about a relationship with a child or a friend or new acquaintance.”

Carol Bick, a counselor who works alongside Ford at WCS, said that next year the school hopes to expand upon the annual sexual abuse education required by Act 1.

“Next year, what we’re hoping is to have at least six classes with every child throughout the year on preventing child sexual abuse,” said Bick.

Straavaldsen remarked that WCS’ commitment to sexual abuse prevention reflects what she hopes will be a statewide push to increase awareness about an issue that has been largely ignored or misunderstood.

“The hope is the less secrecy there is around this topic, the more everyone’s going to be able to talk about it—adults and children alike,” Straavaldsen said.

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