By Kate Nyquist, Education Services Manager, Center for Child Protection, Austin, TX
“Could I please get a volunteer to stand up and tell us about your last sexual experience?” This is typically the way I grab the attention of those who aren’t yet willing to make eye contact with me during the difficult subject matter of child sexual abuse in community trainings. Of course I never get volunteers but it helps push everyone’s discomfort so far that the group dynamics inevitably turn to laughter. As always demonstrated by this awkward question, sex in itself is already a taboo conversation. One we might only have with our closest friends or significant other. When you take that taboo topic and add a child into the equation that makes the discussion seemingly impossible to talk about and, for many, even think about.
However, at our office, this is exactly what children are expected to discuss every single day. I work for the Center for Child Protection, which is the children’s advocacy center in Austin, Texas, serving Travis County since 1989. Our primary service is the Forensic Interview where a child’s recorded statement is taken after they have been severely physically abused, sexually abused or have witnessed a violent crime such as domestic violence or homicide. Last year alone, our office interviewed more than 1,000 children, and the majority of those cases were cases of child sexual abuse. This devastating fact ultimately brings up the question, how are we to ever fully expect children to be able to talk about these difficult topics, if we—as adults—aren’t willing to talk about them ourselves?
The contrast of such disclosures is silence, and with silence secrets develop, thrive and trap children and families. Earlier this month, I provided a guest lecture at the University of Texas at Austin within the College of Education. After the class, I sat in my car to read the evaluations that were completed at the conclusion of my presentation. Half way through the stack, I came across one evaluation that made my heart drop. It stated, “I was sexually abused as a child. I wish that when I was in elementary school, preschool, etc. that my teachers and parents were aware of the warning signs and how to ask me about them. Maybe then I would have told my mom.”
This is not uncommon to hear after trainings on child sexual abuse. However, what I found to be especially troubling was the fact that this was a classroom full of sophomores, all female, and this particular student, not more than a year or two prior, was a child herself. I sat and wondered whether this was the first time that she told anyone, on an anonymous evaluation. There are days I feel we have made tremendous progress, but this particular evaluation served as a reminder to me that we still have a very long way to go and a lot of people still to reach. This cannot be done by only one person, one organization or with one conversation.
Three years ago, our Center incorporated Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children® into our Education Services, and it has become the tool we use to teach adults how to begin discussing and ultimately preventing child sexual abuse in our community. I believe the greatest benefit of the program is the environment for group discussion and mutual learning. Adults are able to see, through demonstration, how these conversations can happen effectively and positively, and participants leave feeling empowered to talk about what they have learned with their children and other adults.
One day, these conversations will no longer be seen as taboo but only as necessary. The Stewards of Children® program brings us closer to ending the silence and ending the cycle of child abuse with every adult reached and every steward trained.
Kate Nyquist is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and a graduate from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Kate moved to Austin, TX in January, 2012 and joined the staff at the Center for Child Protection, a children’s advocacy center that serves as the only nonprofit directly involved in the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in Travis County. In her current position at the Center, Kate developed and now manages the Education Services program and provides regular educational opportunities and trainings to both parents and professionals that work with children on identifying signs and symptoms of abuse, what to do if a child discloses abuse, the legal requirements of the mandated reporting laws, as well as prevention strategies to keep children safe from harm. The mission of this program is to keep children safe from abuse and neglect through the involvement of informed parents, professionals and community members, and also to empower those adults to properly report if they have suspicions that abuse might be taking place in a child’s home, community, or school. Since the program’s official launch in 2013, Kate has trained more than 10,000 Texans regarding these important issues.
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