5 Essential Steps to Preventing Child Sexual Abuse
By Pam Gillin,
Registered Nurse – Greater Baltimore Medical Center – SAFE Program
Board of Directors – No More Stolen Childhoods
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a complex problem with considerable dimensions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified child sexual abuse as “a significant, but preventable public health problem.” The best available data suggests that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. These numbers are alarming, but we also know that CSA is vastly under-reported. CSA is also associated with long-term impacts on the physical and mental health of those affected.
I am a registered nurse and Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). I perform medical forensic examinations of children affected by child sexual abuse, and can attest to the magnitude of this issue. In 2020, our GBMC SAFE Team cared for 94 child victims from Baltimore County. Despite the complexities of the issue and the reality that all victims don’t come through our doors, I know we are helping change the trajectory for those we care for. The abuse will stop for these children, but it makes me wonder, how could this abuse have been prevented? Wouldn’t it be better to focus our efforts as a community, to do everything we can to keep these children from ever needing this care?
No More Stolen Childhoods agrees with the CDC that the goal is to stop child sexual abuse from happening in the first place. This starts with raising awareness and understanding in order to reframe this issue from a taboo topic that is closeted away into an openly discussed public health issue. Normalizing talking about CSA is essential to preventing it.
We need to be honest about who perpetrates child sexual abuse. An abuser is rarely a stranger, with research suggesting 90% of abuse is committed by someone a child knows and trusts, and nearly half by a relative or someone living with the child. Maybe even more surprisingly, over half of all sexual offenses committed against prepubescent children are committed by older, more powerful children.
With our partners at GBMC, No More Stolen Childhoods is offering evidence informed child sexual abuse prevention trainings to adults in our community. We cannot expect children to carry the burden of protecting themselves. Children are often reluctant to disclose, and often developmentally ill-equipped to process the abuse.
The Stewards of Children training highlights five steps for adults to take to protect children:
- Learning the facts about child sexual abuse in order to prevent it.
- Educating caregivers on how to minimize the opportunities for sexual abuse. The focus is on eliminating isolated, one on one encounters, between children and adults. CSA requires privacy. Limiting opportunity in the home, school, and child-serving community organizations is vital. As our GBMC SAFE team has seen in practice, it only takes a quick trip to the restroom for an offender to exploit this situation and for abuse to occur.
- Talking about the issue to empower children to have control of their bodies and to say no to unwanted touch. It is an ongoing educational process starting with open, age-appropriate communication with children about their bodies, boundaries, and sex. Children should know anatomically correct names for body parts and be taught that no one should ever ask them to take their clothes off. They also need to know that no one should take their clothes off in front of them. This is especially important with online interactions. An online predator will lose interest quickly in a child who won’t comply.
- Recognizing the signs that child sexual abuse may have occurred. At GBMC SAFE we say, “It is normal to be normal.” In over 90% of our cases there will be no physical injury. Behavioral changes such as unexplained anger, nightmares, and regression sometimes appear, but not always, and these signs in isolation don’t necessarily mean a child has been abused, but they do present an opportunity for continued dialogue and examination.
- Reacting Responsibly to suspicions of abuse. This training equips parents, and trusted adults, with a playbook detailing how to respond and what to do if a child discloses sexual abuse or if it is observed or suspected. The training challenges adults to think creatively in their own homes and communities, around how they can plan that one on one interactions between adults and children are avoided.
Through these steps, parents and trusted adults can be equipped with the tools to prevent, identify, and intervene on child sexual abuse, which are responsibilities we share as a community.
In Delaware, the Beau Biden Foundation set out to educate 5% of the adults with the Stewards of Children training. The plan embraces Malcolm Gladwell’s premise that major societal change occurs quickly once we reach “the tipping point,” the critical mass needed for change. Help us make Maryland a tipping point state. Take the training and be part of a movement to protect our children.
Sexting and the Implication For Your Family
As parents and caregivers, it is important for us to understand sexting and the implications to our teens, understanding that they are engaging in a behavior that is commonplace in their world but carries complicated implications in our legal system. For today’s blog, we are talking about images consensually shared between tween or teens.
“Sexting is the sending of nude, suggestive, or sexually explicit photos by electronic means, usually through texts, chat boards, or social media. Maryland is one of the states that does not have specific sexting legislation. Sexting that involves minors falls under the state’s child pornography and related laws. While these laws were originally intended to punish adults who exploit children, they can impose the same harsh penalties on teens—many of whom are minors—for common adolescent behavior.”
Inevitably, if your tween or teen has a mobile device or access to the Internet, they will probably have some interaction with sexually inappropriate electronic images.
The Cyberbully Research Center collected (unpublished) data in April 2019 from a national sample of nearly 5,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 17. They found that 14% sent and 23% had received sexually explicit images. These figures represent an increase of 13% for sending and 22% for receiving from what they previously found in 2016. These images can be distributed via text messages (sexting), open and anonymous chat/video rooms, mobile applications like Discord and Omegle, some social media applications like SnapChat or directly from one mobile device to another.
What to do if your tween or teen receives an explicit image?
- If your children have received any nude pictures on their phones, have them delete the photos. Your family does not want to run the risk of having what could be deemed “child pornography” on any of its devices.
- Do not re-send/forward the picture to anyone.
- Ensure your child tells parent/care provider/trusted adult. This is a serious matter, and it requires a calm, supportive conversation. Your child may/may not have asked for this photo.
- Discuss the matter as a family. This is a teaching moment for everyone. It is important to ensure everyone in the household is aligned regarding how to handle such incidents.
- If your child knows who sent the content, address the issue with that child and their parents/care providers.
- Some experts advise that you report the photo to your local police. In some states, teachers and other school staff are required by law to report sexting photos to law enforcement. If malice or criminal intent or an adult is involved, you may want to get some legal advice. As child-pornography charges could be filed against anyone involved.
What to do if your tween or teen sent an image to someone else?
- Talk about the situation with your child. It will be uncomfortable, but this is a serious event. Help them understand that once something is “on the Internet”, its permanent no matter what anyone says to the contrary.
- Avoid shaming your child, instead teach and discuss with them the importance of self-respect, self-worth and how sending such images does not support a healthy sense of self. Discuss the psychological impacts…what does that say about how the child sees/feels about themselves. What do others think of your child that they would send this?
- Discuss the legal consequences of their action under both state and federal law.
- Explain the long-term consequences of these action; legal, social, familial. It takes a long time to build a good reputation and one inappropriate photo to ruin it.
The Law In Maryland
When sexually material has been sent to a minor, some states consider this child pornography. This designation of child pornography includes both children participating in the sexting and any additional viewers of the materials (photos or videos) that are shared with or without consent.
“In Maryland, a person who creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute child pornography faces harsh felony penalties. Child pornography includes images or videos depicting a minor (younger than 18) engaged in an obscene act or sexual conduct. The Maryland Court of Appeals held that child pornography charges apply to selfies taken by minors. In a 2019 case, a 16-year-old was found guilty of child pornography for filming herself engaged in sexual conduct and sending the video to her teenage friends. The court held that, under the plain language of the statute, the 16-year-old could be both the pornographer and the subject of child pornography. (In re S.K., 215 A.3d 300 (Md. Ct. App. 2019).)”
When most laws related to child pornography were written, sexting between minors was not remotely in the minds of legislators. Laws are constantly changings to address today’s technology and how adolescent’s use it to exchange explicit material. This year the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation (HB180) to address aspects of the law:
- Prohibits the court from placing the child in community detention in consensual sexting cases.
- Authorizing the court to order a child engaged in sexting behavior to participate in an age-appropriate educational program.
- Specifically outlines that sexting does not apply to cases where there is an age difference of 4 or more years between the two children involved, nor does it apply to cases where a child does not consent or was coerced or threatened into participation.
Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers are unaware of the serious consequences related to the taking, sending, and sharing of sexually explicit material between tweens and teens. As parents and care givers, it is imperative to regularly speak with your teen about the emotional and mental impact of sexting; what to do if they receive sexually explicit material or if they send it; and the potential legal ramifications of possessing and transmitting this type of content.
Sources & Resources
Guides to Setting Parental Controls on Kids’ Devices, Apps, and Games
In a world of ever-evolving technology, many parents know there are steps to take that make the devices and apps their kids use more safe and age-appropriate, but just keeping up with what the latest app is can be daunting, what to speak of staying on top of safety precautions.
Intimidating though it may be, when it comes to child protection, the sooner the better. It is easier to place limits on a child’s usage while they are young, and normalize it, then to begin once they are teenagers. But regardless of their age, the present is the best time to start.
This month is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and to help make things a little easier, we’ve compiled links to guide you through the parental controls of some of the major services, applications, and games used by children nationwide:
Devices and Operating Systems
- Google Play (and Movies, TV, Books, Music, etc.)
- Youtube Kids
- Amazon Kids+ (previously “FreeTime”)
Your Teen Was Texted A Photo, Now What?
More details coming soon.
Talk To Kids About Their Bodies & Setting Boundaries
More details coming soon.
More details coming soon.
You Know Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
1 in 10 American children will be sexually abused before the age of 18. There are approximately 42 million adult survivors living in the U.S. alone.1 This means that you know, and might even love, a survivor. This can be a tough subject to face, but there is good news: now that you know what your friends could be going through, you have the chance to be a changemaker. Your response could make all the difference for someone going through a tough time!
Listen to this story:
So what now?
If you or someone you know needs help, free, confidential services are available 24/7. You can call 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (367-5444) or text the word “LIGHT” to 741-741. If you don’t know whether someone you know is a survivor, consider learning more about the survivor experience so you can empathize. Think about the way you talk to your friends–are you supportive? Do they know that you’re there for them, and will listen to what they have to say?
Journal prompt: Imagine a friend tells you they’re a survivor. What would you say? What would you do? Would it change anything about the way you treat them today?
Victims Almost Always Know Their Abusers.
90% of children who experience sexual abuse are abused by someone they know and /or trust. 30% of victims are abused by a family member, and 60% by someone known to the family or survivor. 2, 3 This doesn’t mean we should be suspicious of the people we know, but it does mean we should think about what kind of precautions we have in place. We have to hold everyone accountable for our kids’ safety, no matter how trustworthy they are.
Listen to this story:
We have to establish expectations for the way we treat kids, and each other, so that it’s obvious if boundaries are crossed. A pre-determined set of values around bodies and boundaries can go a long way toward protecting your kids from sexual abuse. It can help people understand what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is, help them make informed decisions, and ultimately avoid dangerous situations.
Journal: what are your values and expectations when it comes to how people treat you? How about the kids in your life? How can you set boundaries so that people honor these values? Check out our free resource for building a Code of Conduct for inspiration.
Abuse Usually Happens When Kids Are Alone with an Individual Adult
81% of abuse happens in isolated, one-on-one situations between children and perpetrators.4 Through a process called “grooming,” abusers often become friendly with potential victims and their families, enjoying family activities, earning trust, and gaining time alone with children. This doesn’t mean that all one-on-one situations are bad – in fact, with safe adults, individual attention can be very healthy. The key is to create safeguards so that solitary moments don’t become dangerous.
Listen to this story:
So what now?
If you eliminate or reduce one-on-one opportunities, you can dramatically reduce the risk of sexual abuse. A good rule of thumb is to keep interactions observable and interruptable. Group activities, dropping in unexpectedly on your kids, and informing other adults that your family is savvy about safety and abuse are great ways to deter potential abusers.
Journal: What are some strategies you can implement to make sure situations with kids are always observable or interuptable? If you have kids, talk to them and ask them to help you strategize. Write down 3 ideas (here are some ways to get started!).
Children Rarely Lie About Being Abused
It is estimated that only 4 to 8% of child sexual abuse reports are false or fabricated.5 Or, in other words, between 92 and 96% of reports are true. That’s a lot! “Disclosure,” the term for telling someone about your experience of abuse, is never easy for survivors. Kids rarely disclose abuse for attention or to get someone in trouble; if a child discloses to you, it means they trust you to help and protect them. How you handle this situation can change that child’s life.
Listen to this story:
So what now?
The best thing to do if a child discloses is:
- Reassure them that you believe them, want to help them, and will support them.
- Ask open-ended questions like, “how did you get hurt?” or “what happened next?”
- Afterward, call your local authorities. You don’t need proof to report abuse!
Journal: What would you say if a child told you someone was abusing them? How would you feel? Make a gameplan now, so that if it ever does happen to you, you’re prepared and know what to do. If you want to know more about how to respond or report abuse, click here.