Child Sexual Abuse: Would You Have Told?

April is child abuse awareness month.

This morning I stumbled upon this article about Erin Merryn, and “Erin’s Law.”

Erin was raped at age seven, and sexually abused as a child by her best friend’s uncle at a childhood sleepover, and then again, by her older cousin, who locked her in a bedroom at holiday family gathering and raped her.

Side bar: People often say, “How could that child be telling the truth when there were many other people in the house when these alleged sexual acts took place.” I was raped when others were present in my home.

I love Erin because she dared to say publicly, that she hopes to make sexual abuse as talked about as breast cancer.

That comment might offend some people, but to me, it is a symbol of deep inner strength and wisdom. It is an intelligent statement. Why? Because if as much money were given to the prevention of child sexual abuse, and if there were as many marathons, pink ribbons, specialized license plates, commercials, and research dedicated to child sexual abuse as there is breast cancer, then maybe child sexual abuse would be a household term and maybe awareness would rise about the grave affects of child sexual abuse.

Glamour Magazine Names Advocate Against Child Sexual Abuse, Woman of the Year

Glamour Magazine Names Advocate Against Child Sexual Abuse, Woman of the Year

About 40,000 women die of breast cancer a year in the United States. I would say that more people die from the side-effects of child sexual abuse, and from suicide because of child sexual abuse, than from breast cancer.

I would also dare to say that many cases of breast cancer (in men and women) are probably attributed to unhealed emotional pain from child sexual abuse.

…Getting back to the article and Erin’s Law; Erin feels that she would have told someone what was happening to her, if her childhood school had a program like the kind Erin’s Law strives for -which is a program to teach children and school officials about child sexual abuse.

Erin’s comment made me think. Would I have told someone at my Catholic School?

Not only was I under penalty of death to never disclose what was happening, but what about children whose abusers work, or volunteer, for the school system? Or are prominent members of the community? Would those children feel safe enough to tell?

However, comes the question of whether or not I would have told anyone.

I was receiving special attention and “love” (in the form of sexual abuse) from my father. I was not always so unhappy about what my father was doing to me.

I was a confused child, seeking love from the only person who gave it to me, my rapist.

I do have two memories of trying call someone outside the family home, and being severely punished for it. Both of those memories involve me making a call because the abuse had stopped, not to stop the abuse. (I do have one memory of trying to get to a telephone at age three, but could not understand how to use the phone. I was punished with physical abuse for that. But the memory is unclear why I was trying to call. All of these memories are yet unclear because trauma and violence accompanied them.

Many victims will protect and defend their abusers and rapists.

Child abusers have the ability to get their victim to do almost anything for them, including keeping their secrets, even if someone outside the situation has asked the child if they are being abused.

The relationship between the sexual predator and his prey is extremely complicated. Through a form of brain washing, the abuser can twist the victim’s mind by grooming the child into believing that the abuser is the child’s only path to self-worth, and to love.

Child abusers are deceptive, manipulative, and self-oriented.

I thought my father was my “boyfriend” as a child. Who knows, maybe I would not have told anyone in the school if a teacher or nun had approached me, or had a prevention training class.

Would you have told?


New State Laws Require More Sex-Abuse Training in Schools

By Evie Blad

“An Illinois woman has turned the lessons she learned in her recovery from her own childhood sexual abuse into a nationwide push to pass state laws that require student lessons and teacher training about the issue in public schools.

Starting in her home state in 2011, Erin Merryn has successfully pushed for passage of a so-called “Erin’s Law” in 10 states, and she expects that number to grow as 26 have considered or are considering similar bills in their 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions.

The bills, which vary state by state, generally require age-appropriate instruction for children as young as prekindergarten on preventing, recognizing, and reporting sexual abuse. They also either allow teachers to count training on sexual abuse toward continuing education requirements or mandate such training for all public school personnel.

Schools are a natural place for young children to learn what sorts of behaviors by adults are appropriate, Ms. Merryn said. And teachers, who often form trusting relationships with students, will be better equipped to intervene in abuse situations if they recognize common warning signs masked as behavior issues, she said.

“We have to teach kids the difference between a safe touch and an unsafe touch, a safe secret and an unsafe secret,” Ms. Merryn said. “Without it, kids get one message, and it’s from their perpetrator who is victimizing them.”

Experts say sexual abuse-prevention programs in public schools have fallen by the wayside in recent years in favor of new efforts targeted at issues like bullying. And the sexual abuse-related programming that remains is often taught to high school students and not in earlier grades.

Ms. Merryn, 29, suffered two periods of sexual abuse as a child growing up in a Chicago suburb. After she was raped at 7, she shoved her hand through a window and became disruptive at school, she said.

School leaders matched her with a social worker, Ms. Merryn said, and created an individual education plan to address her behavior. “But they weren’t asking the important question: ‘Erin, why did you do this?’ ” she recalled. “I am confident I would have told.”

Statistics and Symptoms

Various analyses of federal data estimate that around one in five girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused as children. Rates are difficult to pinpoint because many incidents go unreported and not every report is confirmed, researchers say.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that 16.6 percent of the more than 2 million child-abuse and -maltreatment reports in 2012—the most recent year with data available—were made by education personnel.

But while teachers are required under state and federal laws to report suspicions of sexual abuse, many fail to do so, said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

“It’s easy in a school environment, unlike, say, a medical environment, for a teacher or somebody who recognizes something to think it’s really somebody else’s responsibility to do something,” he said. “There’s kind of a diffusion of responsibility that can happen.”

In addition, teachers get inconsistent, often minimal training in how to make reports, and sometimes fail to recognize the signs of child sexual abuse, Mr. Finkelhor said.

Children who have been sexually victimized often demonstrate sudden changes in behavior at school, such as social withdrawal, aggression, or constant crying, said Brigid A. Normand, a program-development manager for the Seattle-based Committee for Children, a nonprofit organization that develops programs to address children’s mental and emotional issues.

“Behaviors teachers see in children are always saying something,” said Ms. Normand, who is working on professional-development materials to help teachers recognize signs of abuse and mistreatment in students. “We need to teach [educators] to reframe behaviors they’re seeing to ask themselves, ‘I wonder what’s going on with this child?’ “

Behaviors like those Ms. Merryn demonstrated after her own abuse are common, child advocates say. Some victims also masturbate compulsively, wear extra layers of clothing out of an instinct for self-protection, or draw pictures that are unusually sexual for their age, Ms. Normand said.

Illinois became the first state to pass an Erin’s Law measure in 2011.

The Committee for Children’s new materials will help teachers learn how to have open, nonleading conversations with students if they suspect a problem, and how to “pool knowledge” with other adults in a school if they see red flags that may trigger a report, Ms. Normand said.

Ms. Merryn, who spoke up about her own situation only after she learned her sister was also being abused, said classroom lessons on the subject give children open doors to report abuse if it is occurring.

“We need to give kids a voice and the tools to tell,” she said.

An analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures that was last updated in 2013 showed laws in Vermont, California, and Texas that predate Erin’s Laws efforts. And many districts implement programs on their own.

There was a national push for sexual abuse-prevention programs in schools in the 1980s, Mr. Finkelhor said. But the programs were largely adopted at the school and district level, and school leaders abandoned them as budgets grew strained and prevention programs for issues like bullying, dating violence, and gang activity were added.

Prevention Efforts

A study that Mr. Finkelhor co-authored with other researchers from his university and the University of the South, which was published in March in the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect, found that few young children are taught about sexual assault and abuse in schools. Of 3,391 respondents to a national phone survey of children ages 5–17, 21 percent reported having participated in a prevention program related to sexual assault, and 17 percent said they’d participated in such a program in the past year. Of respondents ages 5-9, 9 percent had participated in a sexual assault-prevention program, and 7 percent had done so in the past year.

In comparison, 65 percent of respondents reported having participated in bullying-prevention efforts.

A task force assembled in Illinois to design its version of Erin’s Law found that the state mandated sexual-abuse discussions only in its secondary schools. That’s too late for many students, experts said, because sexual-abuse rates peak at earlier ages.

While some states that have adopted Erin’s Law allow parents to opt out of the lessons for their children, most concerned parents change their minds when they study the materials and see that they are not graphic or overtly sexual, said Jennifer Wooden Mitchell, a co-president of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention, in Shelburne, Vermont.

Utah’s New Law

Utah’s legislature—the most recent to act—passed an Erin’s Law bill on March 12. It will go into effect in the 2016-17 school year if it is signed into law by Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican. A spokesman for the governor said his office is reviewing the bill to determine if he will sign it.

The Utah bill requires schools to use instructional materials approved by the state board of education to provide prevention training to school personnel and parents. It makes student lessons optional and subject to parental approval. Utah state Rep. Angela Romero, a Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, said she proposed it after reading about Ms. Merryn in People magazine.

Ms. Merryn said the biggest objections to the bills are from state lawmakers who don’t want to impose additional mandates on schools and those who fear the programs will create a cost burden for districts.

Illinois’ task force acknowledged the burden of adding a mandate without new funding in its report. Materials and training, offered by a variety of third-party groups, carry varying costs. But Ms. Merryn said much of the programming can be financed by grants and led by current employees, such as nurses and social workers.

“You can’t put a dollar amount on a child’s life,” she said.”


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7 Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Would You Have Told?

  1. KevinF says:

    Great article, Alethea. Covers lots of bases with lots of information. The idea of ‘making sexual abuse as talked about as breast cancer’ is an incredible concept when viewed from my (or others’) childhood background. If that comes about, it will be amazing.

  2. Mary says:

    I used to assist on a YWCA prevention program in the mid 2000s. For elementary school children, the program had three parts – bullying, stranger predator, and trusted adult predator. The program was funded by individual schools that chose it, so it was inconsistent from one district to the next. Also, it was just a one day program out of an entire year’s curriculum, so I’m not sure how effective it was. We presented skits for each of the three scenarios, and talked about the situations with the kids afterward. After all the skits were presented, we gave the kids time to come talk to us individually if they chose to. Many of them just wanted to come say things they enjoyed about the program, or ask us questions about ourselves, or talk about some issue within their family that was bothering them, but not necessarily abuse (divorce, an older sibling getting in trouble, etc). Once I had a girl come to me and tell me about her cousin (actually a foster child who lived with her aunt and uncle) who was essentially grooming her. I was new to the program, but we all had extensive training. Nonetheless, I asked her if I could bring another YWCA counselor over to hear her story, and she agreed. Eventually, there was a meeting in the principal’s office with the girl and her parents, and we all boosted her up for being brave and telling people about what was going on. Our biggest message to these kids was to tell and keep telling. We had them think of at least three trusted adults they could talk to if someone was abusing them. We told them if the first person doesn’t believe you, you need to find another person. I left the program after about a year (for several reasons I won’t go into now). I heard later that they had lost a lot of schools due to lack of funding. I think this is basic health information, and should definitely be a part of school curriculum.

    • Alethea says:

      This is good testimony that even if a program helps just one person then it is worth it.

      Thanks Mary.

  3. I DID tell but wasn’t believed till I was married at 15 and my father raped me in the home of my husband. Only then, because he hurt my baby, was he arrested and imprisoned.

    I think if more children were taught that someone touching you like that is not right, it still wouldn’t help. My niece was molested by my brother, her father, and she didn’t tell even though she was taught from a very young to tell. She was raped, over at least four years, along with her four step sisters. They finally told, together, and my brother went to prison.

    • Mary says:

      I’m sorry you had to go through such heartache. I also have a brother who has sexually abused children. I understand your frustration at seeing a case where someone was given the information about abuse and encouraged to tell, but it happened anyway. I want you to consider something, though. When I worked a prevention program, there were times my coworkers felt that some kid’s reaction was a red flag. In spite of that, during the time we devoted to individual counsel, often that kid wouldn’t come out and talk to us. People who had done the program for years said, “They might not be ready now, but we’ve planted a seed. Even if they never tell, even if they wait until they’re adults, we think it could help them to know that someone said, ‘This isn’t right, and you shouldn’t be treated this way'” I think it could have value to simply validate what someone is feeling, even if they are not ready to break that silence.

    • Alethea says:

      Dear I’m taking a Nap,

      That’s powerful testimony. I agree with you. It has to be more than just teaching “good touch, bad touch.”

  4. Thank you for this post. Wonderful information.

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