As the school year begins, our mom brains are in overdrive, thinking about our children's health and safety in entirely different ways. Are our kids going to be safe at school? Should we keep them home instead? Sadly, for some kids, being “safer at home” is anything but safe. For many child abuse victims, home is the most dangerous place they can be. That’s because children often live with their abusers. According to the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, 90% of the time the abuser is someone the family knows. 60% of the time it is someone in that family’s inner-circle. 30% of the time it is a family member.
Nationally, one in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18. But in Shelby County, the rates are double the national average. DOUBLE. And that’s not all. The stress of this pandemic, including unemployment, will likely contribute to increased rates of abuse.
Imagine being trapped in a house with the very person who inflicts physical, sexual, or emotional abuse on you and the people you love. Imagine that person threatening you. Telling you they’ll hurt you if you reveal this abuse to anyone. Telling you no one will believe you, or worse—no one would even care.
If you’re not already convinced teachers are some of the most amazing people on earth, mull this over a bit. During Tennessee’s peak stay-at-home orders, reports of suspected child abuse dropped 27% because children weren’t around teachers and other trusted adults who might notice a problem.
School personnel identify 52% of child abuse cases, more than any other profession or organizational type, including child protective service agencies and the police.
Did you get that? Teachers are the ones who report child abuse the most. Teachers, with their endless patience, spend 35 hours a week with our children and can miraculously get them to do things parents can’t even do. I still don’t know how someone ever manages to get a group of toddlers to lie down on a mat and nap at the exact same time.
Teachers are the key here, but will they be able to pick up on cues when they only see the kids through a computer screen?
So what can we DO about this? How can we protect our kids?
- We can believe them. If a child works up the courage to tell you someone is hurting them, believe them. Children rarely lie about abuse.
- Report any suspicion of abuse. Did you know that’s actually the LAW? Anyone who suspects child abuse is required by law to report it. That means relatives, teachers, friends, doctors, coaches, church leaders. Anyone who thinks a child is being abused is legally obligated to report it. Here’s how to do that.
- Learn how to keep children safe. The Memphis Child Advocacy Center offers training sessions for parents and people who work with children. They are currently offering this interactive, facilitator-led training virtually.
- Talk to your children. While “stranger danger” is an important topic, 90% of the time children are sexually abused by someone they know and trust. It’s not enough to teach them not to get in a car with a stranger; they need to know what to do if their uncle or aunt does something inappropriate. If the baseball coach or the older kid in the neighborhood makes them uncomfortable. Make sure they fully understand their bodies belong to them, and certain body parts are private and not okay for anyone other than a parent or doctor to touch. (I’m very happy our pediatrician always says this during a well visit. Last time I chimed in and said, “and only a doctor if mommy or daddy is in the room too.”) Here’s a handy flyer loaded with information about how to talk to kids.
- Teach your children the correct names for private body parts. Do not make up cutesy names. These are body parts, and kids need to know the correct terminology. What if your child actually tried to tell someone about abuse but that adult didn’t know your made-up name meant something else?
- Teach your children the difference between a secret and a surprise, and then tell them we don’t keep secrets. No adult should ever ask a child to keep a secret. A surprise, on the other hand, is something people will find out in the near future – like a birthday gift. No secrets.
- Do not force your child to hug or kiss anyone. I know that’s hard, and lots of relatives want to hug your precious child. But making them hug someone if they don’t want to teaches them that if an adult demands affection, they must give it. You can teach them to politely decline. “No, thanks, how about a high five?” Giving your child the knowledge that they have autonomy over their own body is really important.
Talking -- or even thinking -- about child abuse is hard and upsetting. Nobody wants to imagine this could happen to their child, but it's happening more than most people realize. Know the signs, talk to your kids, and report any suspicions.
The Memphis Child Advocacy Center offers "Stewards of Children" child sexual abuse prevention training for parents and adults who work or volunteer with kids. Stewards is smart, evidence based, and empowering. It has been shown to work: adults who take the training follow up with actions that help keep kids safe. If you have a group interested in virtual Stewards of Children sessions, these are available. Our certified facilitators lead these interactive sessions. Contact Kris Crim, email@example.com, 901.888.4363 to schedule training for your organization.