(The Following Op-Ed appeared in the Trenton Times July 14, 2013)

Now is the Time to Create a Safe Community to Protect our Children from Sexual Abuse by Penny Ettinger

Now is the time to create a safe community to protect our children from sexual abuse. Jerry Sandusky has been convicted of 45 out of 48 counts of child sexual abuse. Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia, in a landmark clergy-abuse trial, was convicted of child endangerment for covering up abuse claims. In the past year, coverage of child sexual abuse has increased with more than 1,800 stories in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Yet, in our communities we do little to create a safe environment for our children.


The alarming statistics of child sexual abuse are well substantiated – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child (and the family) knows and in many cases loves. Thirty percent of these cases are committed by a family member. And most sexual abuse is never reported. The grim reality is child sexual abuse happens in every community.


Still, there is a solution. It is our moral responsibility to educate ourselves and our children about these potential dangers in our communities. Recently the Greater Mercer Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse was formed to do exactly this – educate every adult who lives and/or works in the greater Mercer area on how to keep children safe and how to recognize signs of abuse. The Coalition, which is part of a statewide effort,  comprises a growing group of community leaders from business, the faith-based community, health care, media, youth and social service organizations, government and education to address this issue within their own disciplines and to get the message out to constituents and ,where appropriate, adopt appropriate child safety policies.


Some steps that we can all take to create a safe community to protect our children from sexual abuse include the following:


#1- Learn about typical vs. abusive sexual behaviors of children

Parents and professionals who work with children are aware that most children, at various stages of their development, are involved in behaviors that explore their bodies and their sexuality. This is normal and a healthy part of growing up. Some sexual behaviors, however, are inappropriate or abusive. A sexual behavior is abusive if there is a difference in power or authority in the relationship between the participants. Sometimes, the differences are in age, where one child is three or more years older; or in size, where one child is larger; or intelligence, where one child may be developmentally disabled.


#2 – Talk to your children early and often

There are key prevention messages we can share with children as early as three years of age about their bodies and their rights that will help them feel more confident and can reduce their risk of abuse and make it more likely that they will talk to a parent about behaviors that might lead to sexual abuse. It is very important for parents to become comfortable with appropriate words themselves.


#3 – Stay alert for possible signs of an abuser

Be aware that individuals who sexually abuse children are sometimes described as nice and even charming, and many are considered to be responsible members of the community. Because of their skills at manipulation and deception, there is no foolproof checklist of behaviors that will definitely spot a potential child sexual abuser. However, by gaining insight into the ways abusers think and the strategies they use, adults can learn to be more vigilant in protecting children.


#4 – Be aware of physical and behavior changes with your child

It is very important to remember that perpetrators typically do not want to hurt their victims because it is their intent to continue the abuse. Behavioral changes are typically more common than physical changes — loss of appetite, depression, sleep problems or sudden reaction changes to familiar adults in their lives may be indicative. Additionally, physical changes may include skin irritations, unexplained marks or unexplained irritations in the genital areas.


#5 – Trust your “gut”

If you suspect that a child or teen is abused, approach the child’s parent, teacher or other caregiver about your concerns. Support them in contacting a professional that can help them discuss the situation and their options.


#6 – Help keep your kids safe online

While there are a great many benefits to the numerous technology tools we use on a daily basis, there are also associated risks with this type of technology. Adults need to communicate the risks to children and teenagers so they fully understand the real-life implications of what they do while online. As a parent, you have every right to know what your child is doing on the web. There are now three doors to your house – the front door, back door and the internet. Lock them all.


For information on the newly established Mercer Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse or for information on getting help for a child who has been abused, contact us at 609-695-3739 or visit http://www.peikids.org. All calls regarding potential abuse are strictly confidential.

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