Prioritizing Child Sexual Abuse Prevention During Re-opening

According to research, times of societal crisis can lead to significantly increased rates of domestic violence—including child sexual abuse. From increased financial and emotional stresses on potential abusers, to less opportunities for discovery or reporting, the reasons for such increases are complex and interwoven. What’s important to understand is that this phenomenon is real—and that our youth-serving organizations will need to be more alert, responsive and proactive on this topic than we have ever been before. And we will need to do so at a time when all of us are under significant additional pressure ourselves.

Here are just some of the things we will need to keep in mind.

Identifying Signs of Child Sexual Abuse
Abuse doesn’t just happen in a childcare setting. As we begin to re-open our programming, it will be important to train all staff on potential signs of abuse so they can identify victims who may have been abused at home or elsewhere during lockdown. Some signs to watch out for are as follows:

  • Changes in behavior, physical aggression, non-compliance, rebellion
  • Anxiety, depression, fear, withdrawal, suicidal thoughts
  • “Too perfect” or over compliant behavior
  • Nightmares, bed-wetting, bullying and cruelty to animals
  • Lack of interest in friends, sports and other activities that they once cared for

Disclosure: Responding to Children Who Report Abuse
If a youth discloses that they have been abused, how you respond is extremely important both for the well-being and healing of that youth, and also for the process of making sure the child feels safe to tell you the truth. If someone discloses abuse to you, it’s extremely important to:

  • Listen calmly and openly
  • Don’t fill in any gaps or ask leading questions about the details
  • Tell them you believe them and that it isn’t their fault
  • Don’t promise that the information they say will be kept confidential
  • Report the abuse to the police or CPS (See steps below for “Reporting Abuse to the Authorities”)

Reporting Abuse to the Authorities
It is important to note that we shouldn’t be waiting for evidence before we report an incident. If there are reasonable suspicions of abuse taking place, then it is your moral and often legal duty to report such suspicions to law enforcement. In many states, you can also report abuse anonymously. When reporting a disclosure, or reasonable suspicions of abuse, you will typically follow your state’s mandated questions. However, some information they may ask for is:

  • Provide the child’s name and where the child lives
  • Where you are, where the child is and where the alleged offender is
  • What the youth said to you (if you have spoken to them)
  • What interactions you saw between the alleged offender and youth
  • What behaviors, if any, you have observed in the alleged offender
  • What signs you have seen in the youth
  • What access the offender has to the youth

Preventing Abuse in Your Programming
In addition to increasing our vigilance regarding abuse that may have happened outside of your program or facility, we also need to recognize that staff, volunteers and children alike are under significant stress at this time. Someone who is likely to sexually abuse children will be looking for an opportunity when things are different. Things that may be different are new program spaces, new staff or new distractions that are put in place that causes staff to shift their focus. Therefore, it will be important to intentionally recreate an environment where training, communication, supervision and accountability are prioritized within an overall culture of safety.

This should include ensuring that all staff and volunteers are trained on child sexual abuse prevention (online trainings are available via The Redwoods Institute), and it will mean reinforcing a culture of zero tolerance for rule breaking. This includes a focus on our Four Rules for Child Safety:

  1. No Inappropriate Touch or Language: Use only appropriate language and appropriate touch. In addition to verbal encouragement, this can include high fives, side-hugs and handshakes.
  2. No Alone Time: Make sure all conversations are observable and interruptible.
  3. No Favoritism: Treat every single child with the respect and attention they deserve.
  4. No Outside Contact Between Children and Staff: Keep all interactions professional and transparent. Use official channels for communication

Please consider downloading and displaying our Four Rules poster to help communicate the importance of this topic to staff, volunteers and community members alike. At a time when many of us are distracted and under stress, we need to make sure that we do not lose the momentum on eradicating child sexual abuse from our organizations.