The thought that one’s own child could become the victim of a sexual predator and another child sex abuse statistic is perilous. Given that 9.2% of the country’s 76.1 million children will become victims of sex abuse before they turn 18 and that “90% of juvenile victims of child sex abuse know their perpetrator in some way” as the non-profit organization Child Help reports, the odds that one will know or already knows someone who is a victim (or survivor) is much higher than one realizes. The idea that the “someone” could be our own child can be scary, especially as our initial instincts and responses may prove more destructive than helpful as in a recent case with a mother from Memphis, Tenn. And while it’s important to know the warning signs and prevention tips, as parts one and two of this three-part series on child sex abuse explored, it is also critical to know what to do and not do if your child is approached by a predator or becomes a victim of child sex abuse.
Knowing what to do and what not to do will help facilitate receiving justice and just as important if not more so, beginning and working through the healing process. The wrong reactions by parents can lead to kids shutting down. “Kids need to heal and often won’t disclose until adulthood,” says Atlanta-based Voice Today’s Angela Williams. Again, as with the first two parts of the series, I spoke with several experts and victim/survivors to compile this list of what to do, and equally important, what not to do if your child becomes a victim.
What to do if your suspicions are raised
Spotting a predator can be tricky. As Dr. Karen Hylen, Primary Therapist at Summit Malibu Treatment Center in Malibu, California states, “these individuals are overly friendly and sometimes hard to figure out because they play off peoples’ good nature, which is why it is so important to keep a close eye on your children and the people around them. There are too many warning signs out there to innumerate that a person may be a sexual predator, which is what makes this topic so horrifying.” Sometimes parents have a “gut feeling” that something “is not quite right” with someone in their child’s life. Dr. Hylen further states that “parents need to trust their instincts, and if something does not seem right, it is not worth the risk.”
Also consider the situations when your child will be alone with an adult (or even another child). “Risky situations that are one-on-one could potentially be a risk,” says Williams, “and parents can do something as proactive as drop in unexpectedly, which sends a clear message to the child: ‘I’m looking out for you,’ and a clear message to the adult that you’re watching.” On a practical note, dropping in unexpectedly, gives you a chance to witness and observe the person’s behavior, and if something does happen, you can have a first-hand account. It can also help you make the important decision of when and how to remove the child from the situation. Even if you lose your tuition or registration fee, that is a small price to pay for the safety and well-being of your child.
Stacey Honowitz, a 24-year veteran as a sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor and supervisor in the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit of the Florida State Attorney’s Office, also states that it is important to monitor your child’s on-line interactions closely. “We live in an age with technology, where the ease of getting to children is maximized. It’s not just the person ‘down the street,’ but could be someone [geographically] distant. Predators will often lure children in using things to entice them—things that the parents won’t or can’t let them do or have.” Honowitz goes on to say that parents should “beware if someone wants to have an overly close relationship with your child, and there must be questions that are asked if they want to spend time with your child even if you’re not around, wants to take your child on trips [or overnights], gives too many gifts or ones that are abundant and lavish.”
Those behaviors in an adult should be red flags for parents. Dr. Hylen also cautions about some additional red flags for parents in terms of the behavior of adults who could be potential predators. Those red flags include “an insistence on touching, hugging, kissing, tickling or wrestling with the child even when the child does not want that type of affection; [a notable] concerned with the sexuality of the child, even insisting on spending time alone with the child [without] interruptions and walk[ing] in on children while they are in the bathroom, pretending it was an accident.” Don’t forget too that not all child sex abusers are adults; some are children themselves, even if they are slightly older than the victim. “Be really attentive of who [your kids] are with. Know the people that your kids are with—not just the parents [or other adults], but other kids as well,” says Idaho-based Jen Austin, also a survivor-fighter, victims’ advocate and reporter. It is important to avoid placing your child in a precarious position where there is access and time, so “don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to people or situations—it’s your child and your rules,” Austin asserts.
What to do for the child if he or she has been victimized
Listen to the child and observe their behavior together. Reinforce that you believe them and that you will help them through it. Acknowledge that what occurred was scary, frightening and any other feelings that the child might have. It is also important that you tell the child that you will work through it together reminding them that they need to trust you, but that there are other people that they will need to tell so that they can get help and that the person who hurt them won’t hurt anyone else. Report what your child has disclosed to you to the proper authorities as soon as you find out. Sharon Grace, another victim’s advocate and the author of “When the Trust is Broken” says “it is important to get past the parental guilt and report [the incident] immediately because time is critical. Parents need to remain calm [for their child] and avoid reacting emotionally.” It is also crucial to get therapy so that the healing process—which takes time—can begin. Of the importance of therapy in addition to having law enforcement and legal authorities handle the situation, Grace says that “with therapy, [the child and family] can get past it and lead a normal life.”
What not to do
Disbelief is often the first gut reaction, followed closely by anger—if not complete outrage. “Don’t be a vigilante about it if something happens—let law enforcement and the proper authorities handle it. The abuser is not worth the risk,” says Grace. Furthermore, you cannot be an advocate for or support your child if you are behind bars or involved in your own legal battle for taking the law into your own hands.
Another reaction that parents can have is denial. It is important “not to sweep it under the rug,” or think that the issue will go away by what appears to be a simple fix like transferring the child to a new school or activity,” says Patrick Dati, a survivor, author, public speaker and advocate for anti-bullying and child abuse prevention out of Illinois. “Don’t hesitate to get therapy [and] don’t hide behind fears of family shame because not treating the child victim [and the lasting impact of the abuse] can lead to other disorders later such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disorders as coping mechanisms,” says Dati.
*Kathleen M., a victim-survivor who was molested as a child concurs with the sentiment, saying that it is crucial that parents “Do not fight. Do not tell [the] child they are wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to say ‘Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like something Mr. Smith would do…’ instead of believing that the child was victimized. The moment that you doubt your child, is the moment you will start to lose their trust. Always believe what kids say, they’re smart and they don’t make things up. If they mixed up something, that’s okay. As long as you know that they are safe, that’s all that counts. Always respond actively, don’t question your children.”
Don’t expect to see physical evidence on the child. Austin cautions “that there is rarely—almost never—any physical evidence. First, areas heal quickly. Second, pedophiles groom their victims and [tend to start off] with everything except penetration or partial penetration—orally, digitally. And even when there is penetration, the areas often heal within 72 hours.” If parents suspect the possibility however, they should tell the authorities and have the child see their pediatrician as soon as possible. A medical professional will be able to make the most accurate assessment of this type.
What to do as a family
Your first job is to protect your child. When the child has been victimized, the whole family is affected, “so it is important to seek professional emotional support and help,” states Kathleen M. “Many parents report the crime to the authorities and take legal help, but decline therapy.” Parents have to “ignore any fears that their parenting skills will be condemned,” adds Jen Austin. “Don’t be afraid to tell and get help. The faster a child gets into counseling, the better it is for the child’s mental health.” While kids will ‘bounce back,’ they will only do so if they have the tools to bounce back,” she says. All of the experts agree of the importance of getting therapy—for the child and for the family. Child sex abuse impacts a child’s life significantly well into adulthood, particularly if the emotional factors are not addressed. “Later significant life experiences such as marriage or the birth of a child can trigger memories and reactions,” years or decades later cautions Austin. Getting the child and the family counseling does not mean that they will be in a therapist’s chair forever—and if they are, it means that they are getting the help that they need to get through and past this significant, traumatic and potentially devastating event.
The good thing is that using the prevention tips will help you and your child have open lines of communication and can help your child ward off unwanted advances from a predator. Further, it means that your child will be able to tell you as soon as something happens regardless of the severity of the inappropriate contact. Additionally, knowing the warning signs can help you assess and identify whether a predator has had inappropriate contact with your child and help you get the help that your child and your family will need particularly if the lines of communication suggested in the prevention tips have broken down. This concludes this initial three-part series on child sex abuse, but it is an important topic that will continue to be revisited as it affects our children, our families and our communities.
*Name has been changed by request of the speaker to ensure her anonymity.
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