The news from the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that more than 300 priests sexually abused children has been horrifying. It follows similar scandals in USA Gymnastics, at Penn State, and countless stories about cover ups in schools and other institutions.
Powerful institutions have valued and protected their reputations more than children in each of these scandals.
In addition to the immediate physical harm, victims suffer toxic stress that results in long-term physical and mental health problems as well as a host of social problems that affect us all.
It is a problem, however, that is preventable.
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While many are focused on why and how it happened, and punishment for the perpetrators, at Prevent Child Abuse NC, we focus on what can be done to make our state and communities safer so that children can thrive. The most powerful thing we can do is to educate adults about the ways we can support and build safe, healthy environments for our children.
We can do this in our communities, our schools and youth-serving organizations, and in our homes. We must start by not being afraid to have these conversations and not keeping child sexual abuse in the dark, wrapped in secrets because we are unwilling to ask hard questions.
Communities can support healthy sexuality and community awareness by:
▪ Contacting your local health department, child advocacy center, or Prevent Child Abuse NC to learn more about how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse, how to find resources and support for parents as they learn the best way to teach their kids about healthy sexuality, and how to determine if the institutions and organizations where their children learn and play are doing all they can to help children thrive and keep them safe,
▪ Encouraging your local libraries to develop and promote a special collection on healthy sexual development and parenting, and
▪ Working with the media and local groups to set and enforce standards for public advertising that avoids being sexually exploitive of children.
Schools and other organizations where children learn and play can support safe, healthy, respectful environments. You can ask your schools if they have developed and enforced:
▪ policies that set clear limits on who can access the property,
▪ rules about pick up and drop off,
▪ rules about social media contact with staff and photos of children,
▪ rules for behavior and supervision on trips to the restroom and locker rooms, and
▪ policies to discourage sexual harassment and peer-to-peer abuse.
Organizations that serve children should thoroughly screen all employees and volunteers with a criminal background check and structured in-person interviews.
New employee and volunteer training should clearly explain organizational policies and include learning how to identify, respond to and report problematic or predatory behavior. (Free training on how to recognize and respond to child maltreatment is available online at PreventChildAbuseNC.org.)
As parents, there are ways to become comfortable talking to your children about sexuality that focus on keeping them healthy and safe:
▪ Discuss your family’s values about healthy sexuality and relationships.
▪ Talk about how all parts of their body work and their proper names.
▪ Talk about respectful and safe behaviors online and in real life.
▪ Technology and media exposure are new terrain for parents. Set limits with media. Know what your children are watching on TV and online. Watch what your children are watching and determine whether it sends a message you endorse.
▪ Talk to your children about the difference between privacy (doing something by themselves, but you know about it) and secrecy (doing something that you don’t know about).
▪ Remind children that temporary secrets, like a surprise party, may be OK, but permanent secrets never are! T
▪ Talk about the type of touch they have with their peers and adults, and encourage them to set limits.
▪ Be open to answering questions about anything to do with sexuality in real life or online. If you don’t know the answer, you can figure it out together.
If everyone who reads this does at least one thing mentioned above, North Carolina can be a safer place for our children. Visit www.PreventChildAbuseNC.org to learn more.
Sharon Hirsch is the president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse NC.