This fall, CALICO will launch a new community workshop to help parents of young children understand the facts of child sexual abuse and what we, as adults, can do to keep children safe. In early August, CALICO hosted a training for a committed team of fifty professionals – law enforcement officers, child welfare workers, attorneys, victim advocates and others – who spent two days delving into the research on sexual offending. As future training facilitators, the attendees will work with CALICO to bring this essential information to our local communities. Below, we share a few lessons from the workshop that may not be widely known and understood. Armed with these facts, adults will be better able to understand risks of abuse and keep children out of harm’s way:
Individuals who sexually offend against children use remarkably similar “grooming” techniques to gain access to children. Adults who sexually offend against children use a slow, methodical process of “grooming” to befriend families and develop trusting relationships before any abuse occurs. Offenders intentionally fool other adults by presenting themselves as kind people willing to go out of their way to help. At the same time, they groom children by displaying unusual interest in their activities, telling sexual jokes or “accidentally” showing them pornography, or being unusually physical through wrestling, tickling, hugging and back rubs. Many grooming tactics are done in the presence of adults to subtly normalize the behavior for the child.
Eight is the average age of children targeted for sexual abuse. Offenders look for children who are vulnerable – they may be young, have inadequate supervision, lack healthy information about sexual abuse, or have low self-esteem, for example. It is essential for caregivers to make opportunities to talk to children in age-appropriate ways about safety and sexual behavior. While it is the responsibility of adults to protect children, children who experience abuse and are able to think to themselves, “this is what mom and dad talked to me about…” are more likely to recount what happened and have improved chances of recovery.
Most individuals who sexually offend were not victims of child sexual abuse. Approximately 25-30% of offenders experienced sexual abuse during their childhood. Some even admit to lying about being abused to garner sympathy or give insincere “proof” that they would never abuse children. The reasons why adults sexually offend against children aren’t fully known, but may include the following childhood experiences: early exposure to pornography, repeated physical contact with other children that was stimulating or arousing, sexual behavior problems that were untreated, adults’ negative reaction or overreaction to their sexual play, or a lack of healthy sex education.
Sexual curiosity is normal for children, as is most sexual play. Children of similar ages and development levels participate in healthy sexual exploration to learn about their bodies. However, if sexual behavior is between children of different ages or development levels or becomes secretive, aggressive, or coercive, professional help may be needed. One-third or more of children who disclose being sexually abused identify another youth as the offender. The earlier that youth gets appropriate treatment, the better. While most individuals who offend as juveniles do not become adult sex offenders, three quarters of adults who sexually offend against children began to offend as juveniles (with 14 being the average age of the first offense).
The majority of sex offenses are not reported. Individuals who offend against children commit an average of 120 separate incidents of abuse before their crimes are recognized and reported. Most children don’t ever tell about their abuse, but those who do tell often disclose to more than one adult before someone calls the police. In one treatment program, over half of offenders who were caught reported that someone else knew about the abuse and didn’t report it, either because the offender was able to convince the adult that the child was lying or just simply convince the adult not to intervene.
Children tell the truth about sexual abuse. When children first disclose sexual abuse, or behaviors that make them uncomfortable, they may only divulge part of what has happened. Children often test adults by revealing one aspect of the abuse and gauge the adult’s response. When a child reports abuse, adults often do not want to believe such a thing could happen. Some think the child must be mistaken, especially when the accused seems nice and unassuming. Offenders will try to portray the child as being confused or, worse, lying. Yet only 2% to 4% of children under age twelve make allegations that are, in fact, false. A child fabricating a story about abuse is the rare exception rather than the rule.
Children are resilient and can recover from abuse. If a child discloses abuse to you, listen calmly and let them know that you believe them and will do everything you can to keep them safe. Do not ask too many questions, and do not make promises you can’t keep. Report the abuse to your local police department or child abuse hotline (call 510-259-1800 in Alameda County). Keep in mind that a sensitive, appropriate response from a caring adult is a vital first step in a child’s recovery.
To learn more about preventing child sexual abuse, see these valuable resources: