Whether you’re browsing social media, watching the news or listening to a morning radio show, it’s likely you will hear a story about a child being the victim of abuse or neglect.
About 679,000 kids are abused or neglected each year, or nine out of every 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. One out of every four girls will be sexually abused by the time they are 18. For boys, it’s one out of every six, says Kim Brightbill, case manager and victim advocate for the Children’s Center of Medina County.
In these situations, questions of “Why?” and “How did this happen?” usually arise. While the answers are never easy, the first step to prevent such abuse from occurring is to become aware of your community’s resources, know the warning signs and have open dialogue with your child.
One key to keeping your child safe from being abused is to encourage them to advocate for themselves beginning at an early age.
“A perpetrator is looking for a vulnerable child,” says Carrie Joseph, training coordinator of the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center in Cleveland.
Brightbill agrees, adding, “The more they know the more they’ll be able to respond and recognize (if) something happens to them.”
Recognize the Signs
Some signs of abuse include injuries, passivity, hoarding or begging for food, victimizing other children, extremely dirty clothing, being overly compliant with adults, anxiety or aggression, and difficulty making friends, according to the Children’s Center of Medina County.
Sometimes the signs of physical, emotional or sexual abuse aren’t clear, however.
“It’s that gut feeling,” Brightbill explains. “There’s not a formula. The question to ask yourself (when deciding to report suspected abuse of a child) is, ‘Is this impacting the child, and if so, how?’”
While there are many signs of abuse, it can look different on every child. Sudden behavior changes, irrational fears, dropping grades or other major changes demand further questioning, Joseph says.
Every county in the state has a hotline to report suspected abuse. The national child abuse hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child. A professional will ask questions and reports can be anonymous. It’s important to remember that you may be the first person to call with a suspicion of abuse, or your call may be one of many.
Brightbill says adults should intervene immediately if a child is in extreme danger — if they see someone shaking a baby or beating a child, for example.
Open Communication on Sensitive Issues
While it’s up to adults to protect kids from abuse, ultimately, children’s best protection may be the confidence to speak up for themselves.
It begins with important conversations. Though parents may be squeamish talking about these subjects, such as sexual, physical or emotional abuse, an early start is vital.
“The earlier you can have these conversations, the better,” Joseph says. “Explain why some behaviors are bad. We close off communication when we don’t teach as we re-direct poor behavior. Keeping open the lines of communication is a great prevention tool.”
For example, “Body safety” starts by identifying body parts by their proper names. From the earliest ages, parents should explain that a child’s “private parts” are just that — private. Instruct them that no one should touch any part of their body a bathing suit covers.
The tricky part is explaining why a parent may wash them in a bathtub or a doctor may examine them, for example. Explaining as they wash, or while a doctor conducts a checkup, is vital, Brightbill adds.
Practice early and often to teach your children to advocate for themselves.
“It’s okay to tell someone ‘no,’ even if they’re a grownup,” Brightbill says. “Tell your kid to speak up if he or she doesn’t want to be tickled or hugged or kissed — never force such encounters. If you teach kids at a very young age about their boundaries, they can articulate their boundaries.”
Joseph advises teaching children they should talk to an adult they trust regarding “anything another adult or a child does to make them feel confused or scared.”
Lastly, discourage secrets — it’s a common ploy for abusers. “There are no secrets about our bodies,” Brightbill says. “Let them know they can tell you anything.”