How education and empowerment can help prevent child sexual abuse
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month
Statistics are grim when it comes to the number of kids who will be sexually abused during their childhood (1 in 10 children, according to Darkness to Light) , but that doesn't mean there's isn't hope to be found when it comes to preventing this heinous crime.
April is Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) Awareness Month, which means Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota (PCAND) and the North Dakota Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Task Force are hard at work sharing resources and tools parents can equip themselves with to help combat this troubling trend.
"Child sexual abuse is much more prevalent than people realize, and it happens in big cities, in small towns and in every corner of North Dakota," said Task Force Director Lindsey Burkhardt. "Ninety percent of the time, the perpetrator is someone the child knows or a family member; it's not a stranger. And with only 38% of child disclosing child sexual abuse, there are so many kids who have been hurt but don't report it."
When it comes to preventing CSA, parents should trust their instincts. If a situation or a person comes off as questionable, parents and caregivers should know that they can step in to keep their kids safe, Burkhardt said. One of the biggest ref flags could be grooming behaviors, such as an adult giving special attention or gifts to one child, being physically affectionate, or trying to isolate a child from others.
Educating parents not only on these types of situations but also on ways they can be talking with their children at home can help prevent CSA, Burkhardt said. Start talking with children about body safety and consent at a young age; doing so can help children feel confident about sounding an alarm if something happens they are not physically comfortable with. For young children, consent can come in the form of asking them if they are okay with being hugged or kissed, even by close family members.
"It's important for them to assert themselves and use their voice to say 'yes' or 'no' when it comes to their own bodies," Burkhardt said.
Another tactic is teaching children the correct anatomical names of their genitalia , something many parents may not always be comfortable with, but is highly important when it comes to preventing CSA. Many offenders avoid children who can correctly name their genitalia because it indicates they are more educated about body safety and would be able to articulate themselves better in a forensic interview if abuse happened.
"Also, talk with your children about the difference between secrets and surprises," Burkhardt added. "Talk about the importance of not keeping secrets, because secrets can hurt people; surprises, on the other hand, are always revealed and often make someone feel happy, like shopping for a present for dad. Many grooming behaviors revolve around keeping secrets."
Burkhardt, who has children of her own, became the task force director only a few months ago, and she said when she first started in the role, she often felt anxious and hopeless about how she would ever keep her children safe. But the more she has learned about how to prevent CSA and what she can do at home, the more empowered she feels.
"The more light we can bring to this dark, icky topic, the more we can knock down these walls and prevent this from occurring," she shared.
At the state level, Burkhardt shared that the task force, which is composed of members from the legislature, the Department of Health, crisis centers and more, is working to develop a comprehensive statewide approach to ending CSA. The task force has various subcommittees, and each subcommittee has a different focus area. The goal is to provide recommendations to the legislature on ways to prevent child sexual abuse across North Dakota.
"I'm doing this work for my kids, for everyone's kids," Burkhardt said. "Every child in North Dakota deserves a carefree childhood. This is a a great time to shed light on a scary topic, and we can prevent it through awareness and education. I am hopeful; I really am."
For parents wanting to learn more about this important topic and how to prevent CSA, visit preventchildabuse.org .
The Dakota Medical Foundation also offers a free training on preventing child sexual abuse; visit dakmed.org/child-sexual-abuse-prevention to participate in the training.
Children love books, so Burkhardt also recommended a few books on consent and body safety:
- " Can I Give You a Squish? " by Emily Nelson (age 0-4)
- " C is for Consent " by Eleanore Morison (age 0-4)
- " NO Trespassing - This is MY Body! " by Pattie Fitgerald (age -4)
- " ABC of Body Safety and Consent " by Jayneen Sanders (age 4-6)
- " Your Body Belongs to You " by Cornelia Maude Spelman (age 4-6)
- " My Body Belongs to Me " by Jill Starishevsky (age 4-6)
Parents might also be interested in ordering The Body Safety Box , a toolkit designed to for parents and children to engage in fun activities with the goal of learning about body safety. Two versions are available: one for kids ages 5-8 and one for ages 9-12; classroom kits are also available for elementary and middle school children.