We have to talk about child sexual abuse.

When you take a look back, Americans have a long, storied history of recognizing symptoms of illness or causes of injury and responding with innovation and ingenuity – think of clean water, vaccinations and seatbelts. Again and again in the news, we hear stories of children being sexually abused or assaulted, and if Americans would approach child sexual abuse as a public health problem, that same ingenuity and innovative thinking would prevent and possibly eradicate incidents from ever occurring to begin with.

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Whether you look at national incidence rates (1 in 10 children sexually abused or assaulted before their 18th birthday) or rates in Middle Tennessee, cited by professionals who work with children and teens in the aftermath of abuse (1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 7 boys), child sexual abuse remains a public health problem in the U.S. And because as many as 70% of children and teens never disclose being abused or assaulted, these rates are believed to be much higher.

There are steps, however, that EVERY adult can take to keep kids safe. It’s our responsibility, and we have proof that knowledgeable and empowered parents can and do protect children and teens from sexual abuse every day, in all kinds of settings – be it at a family dinner, a neighborhood gathering, a daycare program, a church youth group, a public or private school classroom, a sports league, or a summer camp. If a pedophile or sexual predator is a virus, then the “vaccination” is knowledgeable, empowered adults, and the universal precaution – the standard practice that should be adopted by every adult, and implemented in every scenario – is as follows:

Children and teens should never be alone with an adult or older, more powerful child in a location or situation where the activity can’t be observed or interrupted. Period.

When parents and other adults apply the same kind of knowledge and effort to child sexual abuse that we’ve already brought to bear on making sure that our kids wear seat belts and bike helmets and don’t start smoking or using drugs, the number of children injured and suffering will drastically decline. What’s needed is for adults – particularly parents – to learn the facts about child sexual abuse, talk with each other and children about the facts, minimize opportunities for abuse to occur, recognize signs in children and teens who have been or are being abused, and intervene responsibly to prevent further abuse from occurring.

What can you do, right now, as a parent? Start here. This is a list of our top 10 best practices for parents to protect their children.

Top 10 Things Parents Can Do to Protect Their Children From Sexual Abuse or Assault 

1. Educate yourself and accept that child sexual abuse happens.

2. Discuss body safety with your children early and often. Start now if you haven’t already. These are conversations about privacy, boundaries, private body parts, and respect.

3. Create an atmosphere in your home of openness and honesty.  Tell your children to tell you if anyone or any situation makes them feel scared, confused or worried—ie. ‘yucky’ or ‘creeped out’. 

4. Choose to believe and protect your children. If they come to you and disclose that something has happened, stay calm and call for help.

5. Encourage children to trust their instincts about people and situations: “If it doesn’t feel right, question it/leave the situation/tell me.”

6. Teach your kids how to appropriately question and stand up to authority figures, including those you know or trust.   Help them practice using different people and situations—for example “I don’t want to give you a hug today, Uncle Joe” or “I don’t need a ride home from practice because my Mom or Dad is on their way”.

7. Talk about child sexual abuse with your friends, family and colleagues.  Become familiar with local resources in your community for prevention and treatment.

8. Be bold in asking adults, schools, churches, camps and sports leagues about policies and procedures they use to keep kids safe including screening, hiring, training and supervising employees and volunteers. 

9. Don’t leave your child in the care of any adult or place that doesn’t welcome your questions about safety and have clear rules in place that address prevention of sexual abuse or harassment.

10. Celebrate people and places committed to preventing child sexual abuse. 

Start here, but stay tuned for an upcoming post about what Tennessee’s state legislature and our public schools are also doing to educate kids, teachers and parents about prevention of sexual abuse. In the meantime, contact me at cary.rayson@pcat.org, and I will connect you with a local Stewards of Children training. The training teaches adults the facts about child sexual abuse, what they can do to prevent it from happening, and how to respond should they receive a disclosure or discover sexual abuse.