Child sexual abuse has no boundaries when it comes to race, religion, age or economic status. Sexual predators can be anyone: older children, cousins, babysitters, neighbors and parents. About one of every ten children is sexually abused before he or she is 18 years old, and of these victims, 35 percent are under age 12. Ninety percent of abusers are not strangers.
These startling facts and more were presented to participants at the Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse workshop hosted by the City of Falls Church Tuesday evening. The free workshop was co-sponsored by Darkness to Light, a national non-profit organization “that seeks to empower adults to prevent child sexual abuse,” and We Support the Girls, a support advocacy group for child sex abuse victims. Tracy Leonard, the public education manager for the final co-sponsor, Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) of Northern Virginia, led the discussion among those in attendance.
The session focused on a film of interviews with adults who were sexually abused as children. This included a male Olympic swimming medalist, who held his school accountable because crimes were committed by a school athletic trainer as well as Miss America 1958 Marilyn Van Derbur, who was a victim of her father’s abuse for 13 years while growing up.
Each workshop participant received a handbook, “Your Personal Prevention Plan,” which outlined five steps to protect children: 1) Avoid isolated circumstances when an adult (or an older child, who can be perpetrators, too) is alone with a child. 2) Have children learn the names of their body parts so they can accurately identify them. Children should be instructed that the parts of the body which are covered by bathing suits are off limits to everyone. 3) Have children report circumstances where they feel “uncomfortable.” 4) Report abuse to the police. Urge those who suspect child sexual abuse to act. 5) Monitor Internet use.
According to the workshop, child victims feel unworthy and that they’re often responsible. When older, they are more likely to become homeless, suicidal, drop out of school and suffer serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and strokes.
Leonard encouraged citizens to be on the alert, “check the environment” and “have your radar on.” It’s possible to heal from child sexual abuse,” she said, “and these people [in the film] are testimony to that.”
Falls Church’s Amaya Franklin is a mother of an eight-year-old who missed tucking her daughter in bed to attend the program. During a group discussion, Franklin stated that parents need to let their children know everyone has a right to personal boundaries. “You can still say no,” she said. Franklin felt the two hour program at City Hall was worth it and effective. “It would be useful to have more of this kind of information available,” she said.
Another Falls Church mother at the workshop was Sheila Heller, a school nurse at Georgetown’s British International School with 500 students. Heller was disturbed to realize that, based on the statistics presented, 50 of her students could be victims of sexual abuse.
The presentation alerted her to keep her eyes open and that it could be anyone targeting children. “It might be someone you know. Be vigilant and make sure that your children are in a safe environment,” Heller said. Although, she continued, when parents are looking for babysitters,“convenience” sometimes turns heads the other way.
Leonard noted that 18 staff members from Falls Church City Public Schools attended the training last week. Their attendance at the workshop comes as a former teacher at the system’s Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, Jose Daniel Estrada, was charged with sexually abusing two students earlier this year and is currently awaiting trial.
As a reminder, Falls Church residents and others may always contact the police if they suspect abuse and there are several resources to seek guidance, including the SCAN website at scanva.org.