Sex abuse prevention

With crisis comes opportunity

The city of Gloucester, along with the city of Newton and North Quabbin area, is one of three statewide Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Partnerships formed in Massachusetts in the last three years. These three coalitions are pilot sites for a state and federal initiative to educate parents, professionals who work with children, and other community residents about ways to identify and subsequently prevent child sexual abuse. The recent case of alleged child sexual abuse in Gloucester has left many people feeling angry, shocked and deeply saddened. One of the most frequent questions we have heard is "How could this have happened?"

Part of the work of these partnerships has been to receive specialized training about child sexual abuse, so that we can offer prevention workshops to parents, professionals and others in our communities. One of the most important points we have learned from this training is the identification of three common characteristics likely to be present in many perpetrators of sexual abuse: Perpetrators usually lack effective communication skills, they lack empathy and they lack a sense of accountability for their behavior.
These deficits are often byproducts of other forms of abuse like domestic violence, corporal punishment or other forms of verbal and emotional abuse that perpetrators may have been victims of at a younger age. Children who have had negative or traumatic experiences from the ages of birth to 5 are more at-risk than other children to engage in risky behaviors as adolescents. Children who lack communication skills, empathy and accountability are also at greater risk to become juvenile sexual offenders themselves.
Many people feel powerless to prevent child sexual abuse but our training has revealed that we can make a difference as individuals and as a community. If communication, empathy and accountability are three universal goals that describe the framework of child sexual abuse prevention, then how we live our lives, raise our children and interact with others play a major role in preventing further abuse. We also need to examine our cultural values and remember these three factors when evaluating what our children watch on television, the content of the video games they play, the types of toys and music we purchase for them and how we react when they get into trouble.

Communication begins within families. By teaching and using accurate language for body parts with our children rather than street language or slang, we are modeling and teaching them at a young age what these words mean. This use of simple, factual language is a perpetration deterrent and therefore helps to give children the tools they need in order to stay safe. Children and teenagers need to be able to talk about their bodies without a sense of shame or embarrassment. Children should be able to use accurate anatomical words to ask questions about their bodies and to describe their feelings and needs when talking to an open and responsive adult.
Children can be taught how to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues that establish the ability to show empathy toward others. Since our culture is inundated with examples of interpersonal disrespect, this is a particularly important job for parents. One way to counter the effects of negative media socialization is to watch television with your children and talk to them about what they see. Ask them how they think the person or character felt when he or she was hit or belittled in some way. Ask them what they could have done differently in a certain situation so that a problem was resolved without hurting someone else. Reduce children's exposure to interpersonal violence in all its forms. Share your feelings with your child and let them know how their actions make you feel. Use positive discipline techniques in your home that help a child understand how his or her actions affect someone else. Children can also develop empathy by caring for a pet and volunteering on a regular basis in the community. Consider volunteering as a family if possible so that children experience empathy modeled by and shared with people they love and respect.
We must also teach children to take responsibility for their own behavior without distortion, and without assuming responsibility for the behavior of others. In this way, they become accountable for their own actions from a very young age. Offering children choices and consequences coupled with consistent adult follow-through is one of the most powerful ways to help children develop this life skill. It will serve them well as they become adolescents and are faced with new choices with potentially fatal or life-altering consequences. Remember that there are always at least two sides to every story, and be sure to hear them all before blaming or excusing your child for something that has happened. Do your best to discipline and respond without anger, verbal abuse or otherwise belittling them.

Children learn from the modeling of the adults in their world. It's a simple fact that they do what we do, not what we say. So, we must ask ourselves: How well do we as adults communicate our needs in a respectful and assertive manner? How often do we empathize with those in distress, pain or depression? Do we own the behaviors that we choose while taking care not to enable the harmful behaviors of others?
With crisis comes opportunity, if you know where to look. The Gloucester Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Partnership believes it takes the whole community working together to reduce and prevent child sexual abuse. The Partnership offers a message of hope for a safer community. Change will not happen overnight, but with commitment, self-awareness, training and education, and thoughtful planning and outreach, we believe the time has come in Gloucester for the city as a whole community to say "Enough Abuse," which is the slogan for the Massachusetts campaign to prevent child sexual abuse.

Stacy Randell and Barbara St. Pierre
7 February 2005

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