Be your child's advocate to prevent sexual abuse

abredeson@islandpacket.comSeptember 10, 2012 

If the Jerry Sandusky scandal did anything for the world, it served as a chilling reminder that child sexual predators are usually not strangers.

"While we like to believe that stranger danger education is good for kids -- and certainly there is value to that -- we have to understand the reality of child sexual abuse," said Shauw Chin Capps, executive director of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, which serves as a children's advocacy and rape crisis center. "Ninety-eight percent of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by people that the child knows and/or the family knows and trusts."

The former Penn State assistant coach served as a mentor to many of the young boys he later was convicted of abusing. He was a respected man in the community, the founder of a nonprofit organization that served at-risk youth. Kids and parents trusted him. But that trust was violated.

A similar situation happened to a Beaufort girl who was sexually assaulted by two family members when she was 9.

Her father, who asked to remain anonymous, said his daughter kept it a secret until she was 13.

His advice to other parents? Be more involved in your children's lives. Talk to them every day.

"You don't need to know where they are every day, minute and second," he said. "But if you get one of those moments where you sense that it's one of those, 'I don't want to talk about it,' follow through on it. Talk about it. It may mean nothing. It may just be typical teenage stuff, but it also may be something more significant."

BE YOUR CHILD'S ADVOCATE

So, how do we protect our children from the people we trust without living in constant fear? Most people are not sex offenders. Capps doesn't advocate living in fear of every family member and friend, but she does advise that parents be proactive and educate their children about sexual abuse.

If your child wants to hang out with his uncle, find out what they will be doing, where they'll be going and whether anyone else will be around.

"You're not asking these questions because you think Uncle Joe is going to perpetrate on your child," Capps said. "You just want to know the details. You are an interested parent. When an offender comes across a parent that asks questions, they know that their chances are less in terms of perpetrating."

She said to make sure you can drop by any time to see your child. If anyone says to call ahead, that is a red flag. There should always be an open-door policy, where parents are welcome at any time without any notice.

"Don't be afraid of confronting the issues," Capps said. "Understand that the dangers are out there. Sometimes we're so concerned about not offending people that we put our children as second priority."

Capps said when parents are looking for child care -- whether it's day care, Sunday school or summer camp -- it is important to ask the right questions. She said to ask for a copy of the organization's child-protection policy. If they look at you funny or don't know what that is, that is a red flag, and you don't want them serving your child.

A child protection policy outlines how an institution will respond to child-abuse cases. It also includes their policy regarding adult/child interaction. Capps said 80 percent of child sexual-abuse cases happen in a one child/one adult situation. So it's important to make sure the policy limits those encounters. If it does not limit them, then the activities should happen in an observable and interruptable space. If a caregiver is alone with a child, anyone should be able to look in the room or walk in the room at any moment. Nothing should be done behind closed doors.

Capps said parents should also ask whether the organization has trained and screened its staff and volunteers. Have they been trained to look out for the signs of sexual abuse, so they know what to do and who to call if it happens? There should be ongoing supervision and training on how to report abuse.

She said it's also essential to make sure an institution doesn't have an internal policy that prohibits employees from making child-abuse reports. Teachers, for example, should never have to report to a principal or administrator who is responsible for making a report. They should be able to go directly to law enforcement and the Department of Social Services.

Capps said when institutions require you to report cases internally, they are creating policies that supersede South Carolina law. She said there is a mandatory reporting law in South Carolina that states if professionals working with children suspect abuse, they must report it. She said she has seen numerous organizations break that law.

TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN

Capps said parents should begin talking to their children about their private parts when they are very young.

"When your child is old enough, which is around 18 months, to say 'eyes, nose, ears, mouth,' start teaching them the names of the private parts of the body," she said. "Use dignified vocabulary."

She said when we use derogatory names for private parts, it sends the message that these parts are bad or dirty. It tells our children that we are uncomfortable talking about them. If they think we are uncomfortable talking about those parts, Capps said the children will be less likely to tell us if someone ever touches them.

Using the proper vocabulary could mean the end to an abusive situation.

Capps remembers a young girl she saw at Hope Haven who had told her teachers on multiple occasions that someone kept touching her pocketbook. The teachers told her not to worry about it and that it was no big deal. It turned out that "pocketbook" was the word she had learned for her private parts.

"She was crying out for help, stating that someone had been violating her," Capps said. "One single word could have made the difference. One single word could have stopped the abuse from happening a lot earlier."

Capps said if parents are uncomfortable using the real words, they can say "private parts." She said parents should give children clear examples of when it is OK for someone to touch their private parts and when it is not. For example, it is OK for the doctor to touch them if there is a parent in the room.

She also suggests setting some family rules. One rule should be no secrets. Tell your child that if anyone tells them to keep anything a secret, they should tell a parent. Explain to the child that he or she should tell even if someone says he or she will get in trouble or be hurt.

She said another rule should be no closed doors when friends come over.

"We can't neglect the whole child-on-child situation," Capps said. "There's been an increasing number of cases of children perpetrating on other children, especially older children."

She said playing doctor or showing each other private parts is fairly normal. Inserting any kind of objects or simulating any kind of sex act is not normal. She said few parents realize that you can file a police report for a child-on-child case. If you do so, you can get help for your child and the other child.

IF IT DOES HAPPEN

Capps advises parents to discuss a safety plan with their children, so they know what to do if anyone ever tries to sexually abuse them.

She said to tell the children to say "no" and run away.

"Having said that, as parents we have to understand that sometimes perpetrators don't let children get away," Capps said. "So that is where I struggle, when it comes to telling kids that. If we tell kids that and they're not able to get away, they blame themselves. Ultimately, how much power does a child have over an adult?"

She said parents should tell their children that if they cannot get away from the perpetrator, they should tell an adult and keep telling until someone believes them and does something to make it stop.

It's also a good idea to ask the child for the names of four trusted adults, other than the parents, such as a teacher, guidance counselor, grandmother or anyone they trust.

"This can happen to any child, including mine," Capps said. "If you're the kind of parent that sticks your head in the sand and says, 'This can never happen to my child,' then you are more at risk because then you're less likely to be proactive. It's just denial."

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