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Child Sexual Abuse: More Prevalent Than You Think

Know the signs of abuse and the common behaviors of offenders so you can protect the children in your organization.

January 31, 2012  |  by Robin Hattersley Gray

CS: Is a hug appropriate?

Anderson: I'm on the side that part of the problem is we have a lot of touch-starved children, and the no-touch policies in reaction are never what we wanted. We know that children need appropriate and caring touch. If they are deprived of that, they are far more vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. When children are craving emotional and physical attention, there are very appropriate ways to do that, and it's about meeting the child's needs, not the adult's.

I could be hugging somebody, and they could say 'I'm not comfortable with that,' and it's important for me to say 'OK, I heard that,' and I stop. A child can say 'I'm no longer comfortable with this behavior' if it pushes their boundaries and especially if the behavior moves from appropriate to inappropriate for them.

We also need to understand that [asking someone to stop a behavior] is not easy because the person [who is being sexually inappropriate] is pretty skilled at manipulation and often has power and authority over the child.

CS: How can schools and/or parents encourage victims to come forward?

Anderson: Our discomfort in just talking about sex and sexuality is a challenge.

Very often children don't come out and say it; they'll hint at it. If we aren't thinking [that child sexual abuse is a possibility], we're not going to pick up on it. If they are talking about someone we really like and trust, we aren't going to think anything of it.

How could such a great person [coach, teacher, minister, theatre director, choir director] also be abusing children? The reality is, all of that often goes together in one package, and it is often how the person [abuser] deludes himself. They have their own distorted thinking that justifies it.

That's hard for people because we want to believe we can see it.

Child Sexual Assault Victims Statistics

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys under the age of 18 are victims of sexual abuse. (2) (Note: The accuracy of these numbers is hotly debated. Most sexual assaults on children are never reported, especially if the offender is a family member or acquaintance).
  • The median age for reporting abuse is 9. (2)
  • 20% of victims are under age eight. (2)
  • Children tell of their abuse an average of nine times before someone believes them. (3)
  • Only 1 in 3 victims will tell anyone about the abuse. (4)
  • Juveniles (youth ages 17 and younger) make up 12% of all crime victims known to police, including 71% of all sex crime victims. (5)
  • Youth who are emotionally insecure, needy and unsupported may be more vulnerable to the attentions of offenders. (7)

Who Are Child Sexual Assault Perpetrators?

  • 90% are male. (1)
  • Approximately a third (29-41%) are juveniles. Among adult perpetrators, young adults who are under the age of 30 are overrepresented. (1)
  • Half of offenders are acquaintances, and family members constitute a quarter to a third of offenders. (1)
  • Strangers make up the smallest group of offenders (from 7% to 25%. (1)
  • Perpetrators are often drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, clubs and schools. (2)
  • Child abusers have an average of 76 victims whereas a rapist has an average of seven victims. (6)
  • An average serial child molester may have as many as 400 victims in his lifetime. (8)

(1)Crimes Against Children Research Center
(2)Darkness to Light
(3)U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
(4)National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
(5)U.S. Department of Justice
(6)The Abel and Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study
(7)Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory & Research (Finkelhor D.)
(8)Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: What Offenders Tell Us

Vetting Campus Staff and Volunteers Who Work With Children

  • Conduct background checks on current staff, as well as on all adults and adolescents who are applying to be teachers, coaches, band leaders, club sponsors and volunteers. Some people with criminal records will attempt to gain access to children through schools, campuses and other programs aimed at children. Be mindful, however, that these checks can provide a false sense of security because many offenders don't have criminal histories.
  • Check references.
  • Rigorously screen applicants who will have more autonomy.
  • Consider more in-depth written applications and personal interviews for adolescents. Background checks probably won't reveal anything on these applicants.
  • Do not make exceptions for people you know or have worked with in the past.
  • Let applicants know your organization is serious about protecting youth, and let them know about your policies and procedures. This might deter some at-risk individuals from applying.
  • Ask applicants if they have any issues with any of your organization's policies and procedures.
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