By LANDON WOODROOF
Child sexual abuse can and does affect children from every economic class, race and religion, but in spite of this fact, it is often relegated to the societal shadows.
The reasons for this are many. For instance, victims may experience feelings of alienation or shame that keep them from telling adults about abuse. For their part, adults may find it easier to believe that something so upsetting could not possibly be going on in their communities.
The result is too frequently silence and inaction in the face of these types of crimes.
Davis House Child Advocacy Center is doing its best to change this dynamic.
On the one hand, the center provides various services to victims and their families that help them heal in the wake of abuse. On the other hand, the center tries to stop that abuse from happening in the first place by providing educational and training opportunities to adults in the area.
One of the educational programs that Davis House offers is based on a curriculum called Stewards of Children. Those who undergo this training learn various strategies to help prevent child sexual abuse as well as how to recognize and respond to possible instances of abuse.
Davis House held a Stewards of Children training session this past week at the Brentwood Library for several of its board members.
“It is a difficult subject, but it’s one that we have to address,” Davis House Executive Director Marcus Stamps said toward the beginning of the session.
It is an important subject to address in large part because of how terribly prevalent it is. The training cited a statistic saying that 1 in 10 children will be the victim of sexual abuse by the time they turn 18 years old. Davis House itself had 467 new clients last year in its coverage area of Williamson, Hickman, Lewis and Perry counties.
Adding to the severity of the crime is the fact that child sexual abuse victims are more likely to suffer serious repercussions to their physical and mental health on into adulthood. Those repercussions can take the form of a greater propensity for substance abuse, anxiety, depression and self-harm, but also a higher likelihood of developing obesity, diabetes, heart problems and cancer.
“When we’re talking about the impact of child abuse, we’re talking about both the here and the now and the impact to that child, but we’re also talking bout the impact of that soon-to-be, in the future adult,” Stamps said.
The first step parents and other caregivers to children can take to stop abuse is to simply familiarize themselves with the facts about child sex abuse. Some of those facts may not line up with what today’s parents were taught about the subject when they were kids.
“I grew up with ‘stranger danger,’” said Tara Tidwell, the marketing and community outreach coordinator for Davis House. “Don’t talk to the stranger on the corner, that’s the one we have to be careful of. As long as you know them they’re fine, if its someone you don’t know, that’s the problem.”
As the Stewards of Children program taught, however, children are much more likely to be abused by people they know than by strangers. In fact, according to the program, 90 percent of child sex abuse victims know their abuser. Additionally, 60 percent of victims are abused by someone the family trusts.
These statistics make a difficult problem even more difficult because they introduce all sorts of societal pressures and relationships into the process of preventing abuse.
“You cannot discount the impact of peer relationships or social scenarios that people are in that creates fear of why they don’t want to do something about children,” Stamps said. “That is the attitude that we are trying to change. That’s what it’s gonna take for this community to be better protected as far as children go.”
It is much easier to be on the lookout for a stranger when trying to shield your child from abuse. The truth of the matter, though, is that abusers can be parents, co-workers, church members, coaches or even older kids (40 percent of abusers are older or stronger children, the presentation said).
Of course, the purpose of the workshop is not to make parents suspicion of everyone around them. Tidwell used an analogy to address the mindset that Davis House hopes to instill.
“The way that we talk about it is children get killed in auto accidents every day [yet] you would never not take your child out in a car because they could potentially get harmed,” Tidwell said. “So we have seat belts, we have car seats, we have boosters. We do everything that we can and use all of the tools that are available to us to try to protect our children on a daily basis as they go about living their lives.”
This means being aware of situations that could possibly put children at greater risk. For instance, according to the presentation, 80 percent of instances of child sexual abuse occur in isolated, one-on-one situations between a victim and an abuser.
“In terms of preventing that, look for ways you can make situations either observable or interruptible,” Stamps said. “You can still have one-on-one interactions, but for example [if] I’m sitting in this room with a child and I have all these windows open, it’s observable.”
A speaker in the Stewards of Children video stressed the importance of references rather than just resumes or background checks in the course of hiring someone to watch children. A serial abuser may never have been caught, in which case a background check will not uncover anything problematic, but speaking with others who have seen the person interact with children may reveal possible trouble signs.
Another thing parents can do to protect their children is simply to be aware of worrying behavior, both among their own kids and those who interact with their kids.
Abusers, for instance, will often “groom” victims by giving them special attention or gifts and may also attempt to ingratiate themselves with families in order to gain one-on-one access with a child.
Since these abusers in many cases take advantage of a child’s innocence regarding sexuality, experts in the Stewards of Children program recommend that parents use proper anatomical terms for body parts around their children.
Signs of abuse in children can take many forms. Most of the time, they are not physical.
“We often say change in behavior is one of the potential signs for abuse,” Stamps said. “When we say change of behavior it could be good, it could be bad. We don’t know.”
Many people probably already know to be on alert if a child suddenly displays symptoms of withdrawal, anxiety or depression. Sometimes, though, children can go the opposite direction as a result of abuse.
Because they “want some portion of their life they can have control over” kids “may actually excel in school and sports,” Stamps said. “They may also want to please someone. They might go out of their way to be very good in terms of extra curricular activity so that they’re very, very good.”
Finally, the training session included information about what to do if a child tells you about abuse.
“It takes a lot of courage for a child to tell you that they’ve been abused,” Stamps said. “They haven’t just decided today, just a few minutes ago. They’ve thought about it. They’ve contemplated the consequences. They’ve thought this through.”
As a result, adults should remain composed when confronted with an allegation of abuse.
“Listen calmly, don’t freak out,” Stamps said. “Because what happens is they’re testing your reaction to see if it’s ok to tell you this.”
Certain phrases are recommended by the Stewards of Children curriculum. They include “I believe you” and “What happened is not your fault.” Adults should ask open-ended questions so as not to influence the course of a child’s disclosure.
Under Tennessee law, adults have very clear obligations when it comes to reporting child sexual abuse.
“In the state of Tennessee, every adult of known or suspected child abuse is a mandated reporter,” Tidwell said. “So if you suspect, whether a child has disclosed it to you or you’ve witnessed something where you think that child is trouble, you’re obligated morally, yes, but also by law you’re obligated to make a report to law enforcement or the Department of Children’s Services.”
Over the past eight or nine years, Davis House has provided child abuse training to all sorts of different groups, including those at local schools, churches, day care centers, civic groups and homeowners associations.
“Really any group of adults who will listen to how to better protect their children,” Stamps said.
All of the services provided by Davis House are free. The company gets a little under a third of its funding from grants, but the rest is all raised from the community.
In addition to its training sessions, Davis House offers victims and their families counseling services and conducts forensic interviews in collaboration with the Child Protective Investigative Team.
“Even though we respond to allegations of abuse with investigative and healing services if we could prevent it entirely we would do that,” Stamps said.