Here's how to talk with your child about sexual abuse

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Child sex abuse is more common than many think — and it’s also a lot closer than many realize.

Just weeks ago, the Siler City Police Department arrested Oscar Vera Jimenez, a Siler City pastor, for more than 100 charges related to the sexual abuse of two children.

That’s not a rare situation. In the United States, one in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. About 90% are abused by those they know and trust.

But education and dialogue — though uncomfortable — can help prevent child sex abuse. The News + Record spoke with three local experts during National Child Abuse Prevention Month about how parents can protect their children from sexual abuse, how they can talk with children about it and what to do if it happens.

Here’s what experts advised:

Talk to your kids about sexual abuse — and start as early as possible.

Proactively talking with children about sexual abuse, and from a young age, is important, experts agreed. According to data from the Crimes against Children Research Center, children are most vulnerable to child sex abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.

“Focusing on the ways that we can all make a difference in the lives of all children is really the best way to create healthy communities where children are safe from many ills of the world, abuse included,” Jennie Kristiansen, director of the Chatham County Dept. of Social Services, told the News + Record in an email interview.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, parents can do that by teaching children to bathe and wipe after using the bathroom, among other things. That way, parents can teach their children self-reliance and show them that adults and older children don’t need help with their “private body parts.”

Teaching children the difference between “OK” and “not OK touches” is also crucial, Kristiansen said — and so is empowering them to say no when they don’t want to be touched, even in non-sexual ways like hugging.

Ashleigh Glover, Chatham Counseling & Wellness’ co-founder and psychotherapist, said it’s important to enforce this boundary even with trusted family members, telling children things like, “It’s up to you and it’s your body.”

Teaching children accurate names of their body parts can also protect against abuse.

“A lot of times you have parents that call a vagina a ‘sugar bowl,’ or your ‘sweet spot’ or just whatever it is,” Glover said. “And I think that’s one thing that parents can do — to start really teaching that ... ‘No, it’s your vagina, it’s your penis, and people don’t touch your vagina or your penis and you tell them you don’t touch my vagina or my penis.’”

Adults should also talk with children about the difference between good and bad secrets, particularly because most children are abused by someone they know and trust — and therefore might be more easily convinced to not disclose abuse.

Creating a habit of regularly checking in with and listening to your kids can help children feel safer disclosing in such situations and can help parents detect signs of abuse more quickly, said Samantha Owusu, Second Bloom of Chatham board member.

“I think as a parent or as an adult who cares about children (that) just being attentive, being observant, being available and open, and not placing judgment on them, I think that goes a long way in preventing child abuse, because children will know they have a safe adult to go to,” said Owusu, a licensed social worker with Chatham County.

Use age-specific methods and language to teach your children about child sex abuse.

Often parents hesitate to talk about abuse because they want to protect their children from difficult topics, or because they’re unsure how to do so in an age-appropriate manner. But adults can help prevent abuse by helping children understand and set boundaries without specifically talking about abuse, Kristiansen said.

“It is important to talk openly and honestly with children about their bodies starting at a young age, in a way that matches where they are developmentally,” she said. “Creating an environment where children are comfortable asking questions and helping children understand the concept of boundaries help(s) set a strong foundation as they grow.”

Having a serious conversation with a toddler or Kindergartner might not be effective, for instance, Owusu said, but parents can do little things to create and reinforce healthy boundaries.

During bath time, parents can let their 2- or 3-year-old wash themselves, even if parents are used to doing it. Allowing young children to politely say no to hugs, hand-holding or kissing can also teach them that they have agency over their bodies.

“... Honoring that helps them to build an understanding of like, ‘I have a right to say I don’t want this kind of touch,’” Owusu said. “So that’s something small that you can do, but at that age, too.”

As children get older, having explicit conversations about consent — actively and enthusiastically agreeing to be sexual with someone — is also important, but often not age-appropriate for younger children.

Prepare for conversation and listen without judgment.

Parents must prepare for conversations about abuse, Glover said, realizing that children need their parents to listen to them without judgment. She said “checking in with yourself” before such a conversation is a crucial step. You should make sure you know any triggers or biases that may prevent you from listening to and caring for your child as they share.

How will you respond if your older child tells you they’re sexually active, or if your child indicates someone you know has inappropriately touched them?

“I think the first thing is to just be completely ready for whatever your kid is ready to talk about — you need to be aware of any bias that you might have as a parent,” Glover said. “And no matter what the kid discloses, you want to remain calm, you want to remain stable, you want to really be able to just take that and be able to process that with them, really being non-judgmental.”

Staying calm is important so that children don’t mistake your emotional response to the situation as anger or frustration with them. If children think they’ve made you upset or sad by what they’ve shared, they’re more likely to hide information moving forward, or feel like any abuse they experienced is their fault.

Signs of distress or abuse can include crying, bed-wetting, or clinginess, Kristiansen said. Glover added that big shifts in a child’s personality, or avoidant behaviors such as not wanting to be touched, could also be indicators.

You can best support abuse survivors by listening, reassuring them that you believe them and by just being there.

If anyone — especially a child — discloses that they’ve been sexually abused, first things first: Stay calm. Listen to them and don’t judge or criticize, Glover recommended.

“Even if your heart is racing, even if you feel like you’re going to go into a panic attack, that child needs to see you as a person that is able to cope with their story,” she said. “You’re not judging their story, you’re able to handle it.”

When children disclose sexual abuse, Glover said most of the time they’re not lying. Because most victims know their abusers, sex abuse damages how children trust adults.

That’s why experts say it’s imperative to tell children you believe them and reinforce that it’s not their fault.

“If somebody discloses, you let them know that you believe (them),” Owusu said. “I mean, hands down to me, that’s probably the most important thing to do — just let them know that you heard them, that you believe what they said.”

“If they disclose sexual abuse, first, you want them to know that it’s never their fault,” Glover added. “And just reinforce it is not your fault, they are not to blame, you’re not going to be punished for this under any circumstances. They’ve done nothing wrong.”

Children might not tell you the full details at one time, Glover said. They may not have the capacity or the language to communicate all of the information, she added, or describe what they’re feeling, but it’s important to be patient and ask questions.

Everyone in North Carolina has a state-mandated duty to report any child abuse to the local Department of Social Services, experts added.

Several child welfare workers are on call 24/7, Kristiansen told the News + Record. In Chatham, people should call 919-642-6988 during the weekday. After hours and on the weekends, people should call 919-542-2911 and ask to speak with the social worker on call.

“The most important thing you could do for a child is to let them know that you heard them, you believe them, and to let them know that you’re going to have to reach out to people whose job is to make sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen again,” Owusu said. “And I think it’s important not to make any promises because we don’t know how those situations will turn out.”

Both private and public organizations in Chatham offer various resources for abuse or assault survivors and their families.

Various services exist to support children who’ve experienced abuse as well as their families. Typically, local law enforcement or the DSS will refer children to such services. Beyond government referrals, several community organizations and programs also strive to both help survivors and prevent future abuse.

Second Bloom offers a 24/7 domestic violence and sexual assault helpline (919-545-0055) that people can call anonymously or otherwise and ask for support. The county’s Child Victim Services Program, led by Anne Chapman, offers education and case management to abused children and their families as well as referrals to community resources that can help children heal.

Guardian ad Litems (GALs) are also “awesome” resources, Owusu told the News + Record. GALs are trained and court-appointed volunteers who serve as advocates and represent children’s interests in court.

“They actually represent the child whenever there is any concern about abuse and DSS involved and the child needs to kind of have somebody speak for them in court cases and things like that,” she said. “But they’re also really good sources of just information and education for the community.”

Another local program, Family Visitation Services of Chatham County, provides a safe space for “supervised visits” by and between abused children and their families. Led by Kit Stanley, the program is free for all Chatham residents.

Glover said she plans to offer pro-bono counseling services to anyone hurt by Jimenez’s alleged acts.

There’s also a training program for parents and community members who want to educate themselves and be prepared, Owusu said. The training — called Darkness to Light: Stewards of Children — seeks to equip community members with the means and education to proactively prevent child sex abuse. Residents can take it through the YMCA of the Triangle.

“Community members can take this training, and it equips them with the knowledge of, what does grooming look like? You know, what the resources are,” Owusu said. “How do I respond to a child who discloses sexual abuse? So it’s a really good training, and for any parent who wants to feel like I need to actively do something after an event like this, I think that’s a really great option.”

It’s important for community members to acknowledge that sexual abuse can happen to anyone, Owusu said.

“I know that sometimes we like to make it into like an individual family, an individual person, issue when a sexual assault or abuse happens, but this is a community problem, and it’s not going anywhere just because this one man was caught is,” she said. “Hopefully he will have to answer for what he did, but just as a community, I just hope and wish that we could all know that we’re all responsible for one another, especially for children.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan. Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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