Preventing Sexual Abuse in Children
Experts: Breaking the Silence Is Key to Protecting Kids
Listen to Brenda Wilson's report.
Listen to an interview with Deborah Roffman and Margarita Gurri about how to talk about sex with children.
May 27, 2002 -- Catholic priests are the focus of the current child sexual abuse scandal, but the realm of possible predators extends to anyone with access to children: teachers, coaches, baby-sitters, scout leaders, relatives. Mental health professionals and educators have been trying to develop programs that help prevent sexual abuse by arming kids with information. For Morning Edition, NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.
Parents: Starting the Conversation
Kids start asking about sexuality at age 4. But they're just looking for the basics, so keep it simple. The question "Where did I come from?" means just that. "Inside mommy's tummy" is often all the answer they want.
Talk to them at a level they understand. "How was I born?" isn't a question about intercourse. They want to know how they got out: The uterus pushed them down through the vaginal canal and out into the world.
Give them information slowly but surely, and in little bits they can digest. What you tell them will provide a context for all the mixed messages they'll get from the media and their peers.
Send the message that sex is like the rest of life -- natural and normal.
If your child isn't asking:
Get them talking by exposing them to pregnant women, babies and family photos.
Use a relevant TV show, a book or an article to bring the subject up.
Source: SIECUS/Deborah Roffman, author of But How'd I Get in There in the First Place?
At Bethlehem Christian Day Care Center in Baltimore, Md., preschoolers take part in a week-long prevention program based on what is known about how predators target children and what makes kids vulnerable. Younger children don't know what is inappropriate, experts say, and they don't know they have a right to say no to an adult.
Studies have shown that up to one-fourth of sex offense victims are children 6 and under.
Alan Nemerofsky, a professor of mental health at the Community College of Baltimore at Essex, developed the program used at the Baltimore day care center. The idea, he says, is to give children enough information and skills to make it difficult for a child to be approached.
Teachers provide them with a vocabulary so that they'll know that their private parts include the penis, breast, buttocks and vagina. Repetition is also key, especially for preschoolers, and lessons need to be reinforced by parents at home. Nemerofsky's program includes a book to help parents go over material with their children.
Nemerofsky says parents weren't that comfortable with the idea in the 1980s, but now accept it once they're assured that what is being taught is not sex education.
"My generation had no names for those body parts," says Nemerofsky, "and our parents very often would not talk about that. But I have found that children are much more comfortable with that and it comes from the parents having a greater ease."
Surveys and U.S. Justice Department statistics indicate that child sexual abuse has declined in the last decade by more than 30 percent. But it's not clear what role prevention programs had in the decline.
Research does indicate that children are grasping one fundamental concept that protects them against abuse: keeping secrets is wrong. Most perpetrators get away with abuse because they convince the children not to tell anyone.
Yet some experts see a contradiction in asking children to disclose what this society doesn't talk about openly. Deborah Roffman has taught sex education for 30 years and is the author of Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense about Sex. She says that despite some progress, there is still a reluctance to deal with sexuality in a healthy and open way. That virtually guarantees child sex abuse scandals will continue happening.
"Sex is everywhere and it's nowhere in children's lives," she says. "It's everywhere in the environment they're exposed to, but it is not present in day-in, day-out discussions with the really real and really important adult in their lives. To me, the solution is we have to understand that its OK to talk to kids. We have to learn how to talk to kids. We have to open up this subject and make it a safe subject, and kids will come to us."
NPR coverage on the Catholic Church and sex abuse.
Previous NPR stories on talking with children about sex.
Kaiser Family Foundation: Talking with Kids About Tough Issues
Sexuality Information and Education Council (SIECUS)
SIECUS: Talking to Pre-Teens
SIECUS: Protecting Children in Cyberspace
Megan's Law: Prevention Tips for Parents
National Network for Child Care: Preventing Abuse, Tips for Children and Parents
Juvenile Justice Bulletin: Report on Decline in Child Sex Abuse Cases
Crimes Against Children Research Center
Surgeon General's Report on Sexual Health, 2001