The Cary mom had a nagging feeling that something was wrong with her child. He was moody and didn’t want to participate in activities that once brought him joy.
The mother realized the changes might be caused by something more troubling than typical pre-teen behavior when she took the Darkness to Light Stewards of Children training offered through her church.
Her heart was pounding when she talked with her son about the red flag signs of withdrawal and anxiety she had noticed in the last few weeks.
The story of sexual abuse spilled out with tears streaming down her child’s face. It was a heartbreaking story of a trusted adult who took advantage of a position of power over him. The sexual abuse started slowly and was carefully planned out over a span of weeks.
The warning signs that an adult was taking advantage of the situation were clear. Her son received special attention, gifts, and trips from the adult who didn’t offer the same treatment to other children in the group. It seemed harmless to allow the trusted adult to spend more time with her son.
It was during one of the alone moments behind closed doors that the sexual abuse started. Her son didn’t know how to explain what happened or how to stop the abuse from occurring again.
Can we talk?
As a community, we failed to protect this child. But it’s not too late for other children, and we can use this story to make choices to protect kids in our community.
Ending child sexual abuse starts by learning the facts and talking about the problem. Darkness to Light researchers say that 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. This makes child sexual abuse one of the most prevalent health problem facing children. It’s also the only health problem that is preventable.
We talk to our kids about the best way to wash their hands to prevent catching a cold, a problem that’s
not always preventable. But most of us don’t have age-appropriate and open conversations about personal safety.
People who sexually abuse children will take advantage of a child’s limited knowledge about appropriate boundaries and touch. Some children haven’t been told that it’s not OK for an adult to pull them onto their lap or snuggle together under a blanket.
Almost weekly, a new story breaks about a teacher, coach, babysitter or relative who has done an unspeakable thing to a child. In 90 percent of the cases, children who are sexual abuse victims know their abuser. This means you may know someone who is sexually abusing a child.
If you are in a youth-serving organization the rule to follow is simple: If you can’t observe an interaction taking place between an adult and a child or you can’t interrupt it, it shouldn’t be happening.
This rule gives the term “open door policy” a new meaning. Other good ideas include developing a code of conduct with specific details that prohibit one-on-one interaction between an adult and child.
Once the rules are established, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure they are followed. The developers of the prevention training discovered that offenders are rarely caught in the act of abusing a child, but they’re often seen breaking the rules.
“Talking about child abuse is a difficult subject for a lot of people,” said LeQuandra Ballen, director of child safety for the YMCA of the Triangle.
Ballen recommends we start supporting each other to do the right thing.
“You may have to take personal risks in redirecting an adult who’s crossed boundaries,” Ballen said.
“We need more people intervening to do what needs to be done to prevent child sexual abuse.”
The YMCA child abuse prevention initiative began in Chapel Hill in 2010 and expanded to Wake County over the summer. The goal is to train 35,000 volunteers by 2017. There is a similar goal for Orange, Durham and Chatham counties.
A child protection movement led by the YMCA has the possibility of making sexual abuse stories yesterday’s news.
“Can you imagine the impact of providing this training for the staff and volunteers of your organization?” Ballen asked. “The ripple effect of that would be incredible.”