Knowledge is the Key to Destigmatizing Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Survivors of child sexual abuse often navigate a variety of physical, psychological, social, financial, and other hurdles in the short- and long-term aftermath of abuse. Unfortunately, all these types of post-traumatic adversity are made worse by the social stigma attached to the subject and victims. Stigmas persist in the absence of accurate understanding. This is why having difficult discussions and changing the cultural conversation about child sexual abuse are essential elements of prevention and recovery efforts.
In 2016, the now infamous story of Larry Nassar’s systemic and long-standing abuse of children as a doctor with the US Gymnastics Team came to light. In addition to revealing the dangers of abuse by professionals, risks of isolation, and organizational complicity and betrayal, the experiences of the gymnasts harmed by Nassar show us just how deeply inaccurate the cultural assumptions of sexual abuse are.
There are common misunderstandings in both how abuse tends to occur (doctor-danger may be more accurate than stranger-danger, for example) and the effects it has in the life of those harmed. As we increase our understanding of the immense impact of child sexual abuse, we must remember these experiences are only part of the whole person.
Simone Biles is the most decorated US gymnast and one of the most accomplished athletes in world history, truly pushing the limits of her sport. She was also abused by Larry Nassar and spoke more about the experience in the latest episode of the Facebook series Simone Vs Herself, where she candidly shares her struggles with classic post-traumatic symptoms. For example, she describes periods of sleeping all the time to avoid “offing” herself. Those moments fit our idea of what an abuse victim looks like, but that they occurred alongside her professional success and being an inspiration to millions, does not. Stigma towards victims persists in part because of the assumption that successful people don’t simultaneously struggle.
If roughly 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse, as studies conservatively estimate, a more informed assumption is that a portion of people we know and care about have experienced CSA. Role models, cultural icons, government officials, and people we interact with in our daily lives; some of them are managing immense hurdles from the impact of trauma, while simultaneously excelling in their career, sport, passion, or families. If we as a society begin to understand survivors as whole people, those same survivors will have even more support and resources, and rise to even greater heights than they already do all around us.
Maryland Expands Access to Mental Healthcare for Minors
Earlier in June, Governor Larry Hogan allowed a bill to pass into law that reduces the minimum age at which a minor has the capacity to consent to mental health consultation, diagnosis, and certain treatments. The bill changes the age at which minors do not need guardian consent for these services from 16 to 12 years old.
While allowing minors 12 years and older to pursue mental health services, the law includes provisions for circumstances where a healthcare professional might opt to inform a parent or guardian about certain aspects of treatment, unless that disclosure might harm the minor or deter them from seeking care. The law does not allow the prescribing of psychiatiric drugs to minors under 16 without their parental permission.
Lawmakers advancing the bill highlighted that it helps make mental healthcare more accessible to minors in families and communities where such care is not normalized, or where the relationship to helping professionals is strained. But the changes introduced may also have immense benefit to children who have been sexually abused. While it is estimated 90% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by an adult known to the child, recent research indicates that abuse occurring in the home by parental figures is a greater concern than has historically been acknowledged. An Australian study of child sexual abuse material found that 42% of adult survivors identified their father (biological, step, or adoptive) as the primary perpetrator.
While the above is only one recent finding, we know parental offenders exist and are often harder to detect than others. This new law expands the access to care and safety for kids trapped in harmful homes.
Originally introduced for the 2020 session, the legislation did not make it through the State Senate due to the impact of the pandemic. However, now more than ever a law like this can help youth in Maryland. As we have written prior, the pandemic caused a dramatic decrease in reports of child abuse due to the sudden decrease in interaction between kids and mandated reporters in their lives. Making matters worse, the severity of abuse increased during the pandemic, and many families experienced a rise in the circumstances that contribute to child maltreatment: stress, unemployment, isolation, and so on.
As youth activities resume, and children begin coming into contact with more caretakers, child welfare workers anticipate an uptick of overdue abuse reports, as well as the more general hurdles for children readjusting to a more normal social life. While the new legislation does not take effect until October 1st, it will add to the growing toolbox of child wellbeing across the State of Maryland.
Announcement from the Board of Directors
It is with great pleasure that the Board of Directors of No More Stolen Childhood announces that Katie Cashman has joined our organization as Executive Director effective June 7, 2021.
We are confident that Katie’s many talents and collaborative and energetic approach, paired with her extensive leadership experience in non-profit organizations will help us in our mission to engage all communities in the prevention of and healing from child sexual abuse.
Katie’s leadership experience includes over ten years with Springboard Community Services, formally Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland, where she held senior leadership roles in quality compliance and program operations. Katie’s career demonstrates her passionate commitment to serving those who have been marginalized, traditionally underserved and are vulnerable to victimization. She obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from Towson University and attended post baccalaureate studies in Gerontology at McDaniel College.
In her new role as Executive Director, Katie will work closely with our committed Board of Directors, staff, community partners and all stakeholders to move our mission forward. Katie is taking the helm of No More Stolen Childhoods as we are engaged in a rigorous strategic planning process designed to both bring the organization into our next chapter and enhance our work. Katie will continue to maintain the operational strength of the organization to ensure the highest quality of program delivery.
As a native of Carroll County who has spent the better part of the last decade overseeing regional programming throughout Central Maryland, Katie is familiar with the unique challenges that many non-profits experience. Katie values the power of partnership and leveraging existing resources to grow and increase access to services and develop innovative programming while maintaining financial viability and long term sustainability.
The Board also extends its deep appreciation to Dave Pittenger, who served as Interim Executive Director during the transition. Dave brought a wealth of experience in non-profit executive management to the organization in his tenure and we are thrilled that he will continue his engagement with our organization in a volunteer advisory role. Dave and the staff and partners of No More Stolen Childhoods have provided excellent support and service during this time, allowing us an opportunity to recruit and retain Katie as our new Executive Director.
Please join me us welcoming Katie to her new role as Executive Director. The Board of Directors is deeply committed to working with Katie to ensure her successful leadership as No More Stolen Childhoods enters its next chapter.
Resource Spotlight: A Kid’s Book About Sexual Abuse by Evelyn Yang
One of the biggest barriers to addressing child sexual abuse is the plain difficulty many of us experience in trying to talk about it with other adults and in age-appropriate ways with children.
Unfortunately, this means that all-too-often these essential conversations happen after something harmful has already occurred. That needs to change, and a recent book from the “A Kid’s Book About” collection seeks to help parents tackle the necessary conversations with their children, beginning from age 5 onward.
The book came about after Evelyn Yang, who is an abuse survivor, mother of two, and wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, publicly disclosed sexual abuse by her OB-GYN. Following that, not only did others come forward reporting abuse by the same person, but Evelyn remembered an episode of childhood sexual abuse she had also lived through.
While enriched by her advocacy work and ability to help others, she realized she wasn’t even yet able to explain the issue to her own children, and there lacked resources to help. A Kid’s Book About Sexual Abuse became the book she wished she had had.
Using a narrative form, Evelyn tells the story not of her abuse in childhood, but rather of abuse in adulthood. She wanted to demonstrate that even for adults the experience of sexual abuse is scary and confusing, and therefore children should also feel no shame in their own confusion, or in telling someone what’s going on.
A Kid’s Book About Sexual Abuse is a book about safety and empowerment, giving children the language and understanding to recognize abuse, while directly encouraging them to tell trusted adults if they are experiencing it. In an interview, Yang explained that “the key point of the book is that no matter what happens, the single most important thing you can do is to tell someone. It’s always brave to tell the truth, and your voice is powerful. This is an important lesson for every child—regardless of whether or not they are currently in an abusive situation or not.”
For more books, articles, videos, and podcasts, visit our resource page.
Advancing the Cause: Maryland’s ACEs Awareness Day and Project Bounce Back
Ending Child Sexual Abuse requires the efforts of many different people from many different sectors of society. This month we are excited for some far-reaching developments in child protection and wellbeing in the State of Maryland.
On May 6th, Governor Hogan declared that that day would be Maryland’s annual Adverse Childhood Experiences Awareness Day. Coinciding with that, Governor Hogan’s Executive Order also stipulated that all State agencies:
- Consider how to implement policies to reduce ACEs
- Cooperate with the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services to enable study and monitoring of State policies and programming that prevent and mitigate adverse childhood experiences
Additionally, all State Agencies that serve children and families are tasked to:
- Incorporate an understanding of ACEs into treatment and other interactions
- Implement ACE-informed care models
These are essential steps in moving Maryland toward a more trauma- and ACE-informed future, but there are also many pressing needs among Maryland’s children and youth related to the unprecedented disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing this, Governor Hogan also announced Project Bounce Back, a $25 million, first-in-the-nation public-private partnership to help Maryland youth recover from the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
Project Bounce Back has 3 main goals:
- The Expansion of Maryland Alliance Boys and Girls Clubs into every county in the State
- The launch of 6 regional mental health crisis teams through the Maryland State Department of Education
- A new technology platform developed by Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning, and others, in order to enable nonprofits to provide better services and job development skills to youth.
You can read more about Project Bounce Back, here. No More Stolen Childhoods is thankful for the dedicated efforts of so many in advancing these causes for the benefit of all our communities.
Understanding Child Sexual Abuse Definitions and Statistics
Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is understood to be a public health epidemic. The pervasive and often lifelong impact on victims ripples out into families, communities, the economy, etc. But unlike tracking a disease epidemic, there are no physical tests or conclusive symptoms when someone is suffering the effects of child abuse. This makes defining, studying, and ending child sexual abuse all the more difficult.
In recognizing these complexities, No More Stolen Childhoods set out to review the range of definitions and prevalence numbers in different studies and used by different leading agencies such as the CDC, WHO, and CSA prevention-specific organizations such as Darkness to Light. In order to raise awareness, prevent abuse, and support healing most effectively, it’s essential to start from the best available science.
After delving into the data, critiques, and caveats, No More Stolen Childhoods chose to adopt the definition of Child Sexual Abuse that is used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Child sexual abuse refers to the involvement of a child (person less than 18 years old) in sexual activity that violates the laws or social taboos of society and that he/she does not fully comprehend, does not consent to or is unable to give informed consent to, or is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent to.”
Secondly, we set out to adopt a basic prevalence stat to inform our work. To that end, and aligning with State partners, NMSC chose to adopt the recently updated statistics released from ChildUSAdvocacy, a leading voice in the legislative efforts to end child abuse and neglect:
“1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys (roughly 20% and 8%) are likely to experience CSA.”
Unfortunately, this number is likely a conservative estimate of the prevalence of CSA, due to so many complicating factors.
One of the barriers to ending Child Sexual Abuse is the reluctance of many to engage with the topic at all. Learning the facts about CSA can feel overwhelming, but actually empowers us to be informed, take appropriate action, and make huge differences in the lives of children and adult survivors.
Click here to read the full position paper: “Understanding Child Sexual Abuse Definitions and Data.”
Click to here to learn about and register for our upcoming Stewards of Children training sessions, offering 5 essential steps to protecting children.
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.