Memphis Child Advocacy Center program brings awareness of child sex abuse

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On July 13, the day after the Freeh Report exposed the sins of Penn State’s leaders for all the world to see, the Memphis Child Advocacy Center went to Facebook with a well-timed invitation:

The report on Penn State is a wake-up call: Institutions & organizations, make sure your house is in order, make sure you are fulfilling your responsibility to keeping kids safe. We can help — thru our powerful Stewards of Children training, and with hands-on policy work. Contact Carol at or 888-4363.

For the men and women who occupy the center’s office in a converted Victorian home at 1085 Poplar, there’s hope that change, in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, comes one Memphian at a time. For a year or so, the Child Advocacy Center has been administering a national child sex abuse prevention and awareness program called Stewards of Children, intended for groups large and small. In the last year alone, some 3,500 people have gone through the three-hour program.

July 31, 2012 – Virginia Stallworth, Child Advocacy Center’s associate director seen Tuesday at the CAC. (Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal)

The center’s near-term goal: administering the program to 5 percent of Shelby County’s adult population, a sum it estimates at about 35,000.

While the awareness program existed prior to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State and the December accusations of abuse against former Memphis AAU coach Bobby Dodd, the recent media attention, especially on Penn State, has meant new interest among local organizations wanting to make sure their employees are educated.

“The greatest impact is in training adults,” said Virginia Stallworth, the Child Advocacy Center’s associate director.

One such adult is Rob Sumner, community director at Memphis Athletic Ministries. For him and his colleagues at MAM, the program served as a welcome wake-up call, especially considering the population it serves is at high risk for abuse.

“For all our staff it was alarming, considering the number of kids they (the Child Advocacy Center) are saying are going through this,” Sumner said.

About 60 of Memphis Athletic Ministries’ full-time and part-time employees attended the program.

“The information was just so — it was so blunt,” Sumner said. “It’s an eye-opener, putting it out there in such a way that it grabs your attention, really makes you think. The statistics they gave are alarming. I think what makes it more alarming is we understand we’re with a high-risk group.”

The Child Advocacy Center’s program has seven steps:

— Learn facts, understand risks. It begins with a startling sentence: “It is highly likely that you know a child who has been or is being abused.” Among the statistics: One in four girls and one in six boys, according to experts, are sexually abused before they turn 18.

— Minimizing opportunities for would-be abusers. This involves reducing the number of one-child, one-adult situations, out of which more than 80 percent of sexual abuse cases originate. “The two-adult rule is huge for us,” Sumner said. “Making sure we’re not alone with kids.”

— Encourage conversations about abuse. This involves removing the shame and secrecy surrounding would-be abuse, which helps facilitate reporting.

–Staying alert. It sounds obvious, but there’s a need to know the physical or behavioral signs of children who may be abused, which can lead to reporting and the end of the abuse.

— Making a plan. If a child reports abuse, be supportive and don’t overreact.

— Act on suspicions of abuse, don’t just note them. There are numbers for reporting, such as Darkness for Light’s help line (866-367-5444), the National Child Abuse Hotline (800-422-4453) or the local Child Advocacy Center (901-525-2377).

–Get involved in fighting abuse. In terms of action, there are organizations that need volunteers and causes that need advocates.

Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton said 274 city employees have been through the program. That has earned Germantown a Partners in Prevention designation from Darkness to Light, a national abuse prevention organization that created the Stewards of Children training.

Germantown’s involvement came, he said, at the behest of Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, who participated in the program over a year ago.

Because of the feedback he’s received from the city’s employees, he said there are plans to bring the program to the volunteers associated with the city, too. While one may not think of a city government as a youth program per se, Lawton rattled off countless ways Germantown employees — parks and recreation, fire, police, library, among others — have regular interaction with children.

“It’s opened their eyes to situations they need to be aware of, things they need to be looking for, situations they could possibly put themselves in,” Lawton said.

Stallworth also credited Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who she said has implemented the training at the city’s police training academy.

“We need to think broadly about where kids spend time,” she said.

The Child Advocacy Center also offers to work with organizations about their policies surrounding child abuse and its reporting. Germantown is working on its policy, which will include ongoing training every three years.

For Sumner and Memphis Athletic Ministries, having such policy, training and safeguards isn’t a new thing. But given the past year, it’s been worth another look. “Certainly that information and the stuff that happened locally with the AAU team, that definitely caused us to say, man, let’s just put it out there, let’s talk some more, let’s talk openly with our staff, let’s reinforce it some more,” he said.

Full article at The Commercial Appeal – Memphis, Tennessee

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