A group of worried parents left a presentation at the Fairfax Library last month feeling energized and invigorated about keeping children safe from sexual predators. The program, designed by the national nonprofit Darkness to Light, encouraged proactive, cooperative community action to protect children from sexual abuse.
Adults often react with a near-paralytic silence to talk of child sexual abuse, defined as any sexual act between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other. Yet silence deepens an already entrenched problem, according to Whitney Gabriel, the national director of an abuse screening program who spoke at the event.
In one study, 38 percent of women said they had been sexually abused before they were 18. Thirty percent of them were abused by a family member; 60 percent by a child care provider, neighbor, teacher, coach or other trusted acquaintance; and 10 percent by a stranger. Though children are the victims in 66 percent of sexual assault reports, only 10 percent of those cases are ever brought to justice.
Though media reports about child sexual abuse often focus on strangers, the great majority of offenders are community members. When a West Marin man went to prison for molesting a teenage boy several years ago, a local news story sympathized with the molester and parents showed up in court to support the abuser. Soon afterward, the youth, who had been volunteering in the local community, left town for good.
An Inverness mother who once dealt with a situation involving a few minors said, “Sexual abuse in West Marin has always been a problem, but people here don’t talk about it. This community still is not very receptive to wanting to help or to knowing about it.”
Darkness to Light upends the “stranger danger” paradigm and puts 90 percent of its resources toward fighting abuse by perpetrators known and trusted by victims’ families. Gabriel encouraged young parents to educate themselves, minimize a predator’s opportunity, talk openly about the problem, recognize the signs of sexual abuse and speak out.
“You have to speak up when you see someone crossing sexual boundaries with children—and when you see others ignoring the conduct,” she said. “When you do, you let the child know you are there for them and you let the perpetrator know you are watching them.”
Abuse thrives in an environment of fear and denial that protects the perpetrator, not the child. Gabriel said defining what appropriate sexual boundaries for children are is key. “It is not okay for a child to be alone with an adult out of sight,” she said. She encouraged parents to talk with children about boundaries starting at age 8 and to teach real names for body parts that are always off limits.
“Demonstrate good touching boundaries yourself and make sure others aren’t crossing those boundaries,” she said. “Teach your child that some things are absolutely off limits and they need to tell you if someone touches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
Youth should not be in isolated situations with adults, whether in tutoring sessions, restrooms, showers, or school buses, and there should be “no closed doors during overnights with friends.” She warned parents to look out for grooming behaviors, as perpetrators use money, shelter, food or consumer goods to make families or organizations trust and allow them access to children.
Parents should insist preschools, babysitters and schools should establish good codes of conduct. When hiring a child care worker, ask references, “Is there anything about the employee that would be of concern?” Tell your babysitter, “We have a nanny-cam, and we watch it,” she said.
Parents must create safe internet rules, monitoring all use and requiring access to chats. All text messages to a child should also go to a parent. “It’s the secrecy that makes children more vulnerable,” Gabriel said. Parents should define the difference between secrets and surprises like birthday presents, and tell their children there is no place for secrets in the family.
“Children don’t always tell about abuse because they are afraid or confused,” she said. “It’s up to parents to recognize a child’s attempt to talk and be receptive when they do disclose. That is the moment your child learns whether you will be there for them or not. Imagine the release in telling someone who listens and believes say, ‘I believe you. What happened is not your fault. We will take care of this right way.’ Praise your child for his or her courage and thank them for telling you.”
To protect a potential criminal investigation, Gabriel said parents should not ask for details. In Marin County, investigations involve a specially trained team; one member conducts a forensic interview, while others observe behind a one-way mirror. Free individual, family and group therapies are available.
Gabriel encouraged the parents to do the right thing no matter how difficult it is. “Our obligation is to the child first. If you discover child porn, you have uncovered child abuse and need to report it to law enforcement. If you see someone cross sexual boundaries with a child, speak up and tell him his behavior is off-limits. You may be challenged or ridiculed, but you are part of a growing group of warriors. When you talk openly, you elevate the consciousness of everyone around you. Support each other. Be prepared for it to be difficult. We must be stewards of children,” she said.
Peggy Day was a member of the Attorney General’s Northern California Consortium for Multidisciplinary Interview Centers and the California Sexual Assault Investigators Association. A retired nurse, she lives in Point Reyes Station.