CHARLESTON — April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time to spotlight the issue of abuse and teach people how to become involved in supporting children and families.
Of course, for agencies that focus on protecting children, every single day is about child abuse prevention, and they would like that to be true for the rest of the world.
“We work at it every day. There’s not a special month for us because we focus on it every day,” said Bonnie Sigers, child protection services/safe environment manager for the Diocese of Charleston. “It’s not a special day. It’s a way of life.”
By ensuring that parents have the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to care for their children, people can help prevent child abuse and neglect by strengthening families and communities.
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, research shows that five important factors are present in healthy families. Promoting these factors is among the most effective ways to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect. They are:
nurturing and attachment;
knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development;
concrete supports for parents.
When it comes to sexual abuse, Sigers said the first fact every person should understand is that only 10 percent of the crimes against children are committed by strangers. The other 90 percent comes from someone they know, and usually trust: family members, neighbors, coaches, babysitters.
Sigers encouraged parents and community members to attend workshops on child safety and always to know who is working with their children.
Louisa Storen, victim assistance coordinator for the diocese, stressed that abusers look like everybody else, not just the creepy guy on the fringes. She said predators also work very hard at establishing a trusting relationship with children and parents.
“What is so mind-blowing to a victim is the fact that so often the abuser was kind and giving. A friend,” Storen said.
The best way to stop abuse before it happens is to recognize the warning signs exhibited by abusers.
Sigers said to be wary of adults who:
are overexcited to be with children;
do not follow the rules, and let children act in a way parents do not allow;
give gifts for no reason;
seek to be alone with a child;
are constantly touching and hugging a child, even if the touches seem harmless.
So many people are hesitant to become involved, Sigers said, but it is imperative to address the issue and to tell the person they are acting outside of appropriate boundaries. If the behavior does not stop, it is everyone’s duty to report it.
She said every person in a community should act as if they are mandated reporters of child abuse.
Some people are required by law to report suspected abuse, such as doctors, lawyers, computer technicians, film processors, judges and anyone who works with children. But, Sigers said, everyone from store clerks to neighbors should act as if they are mandated by law to report suspicious activity. She said this includes anything that makes another person uncomfortable, whether it is emotional, physical or sexual.
Call the Department of Social Services to report family members, or the police to report anyone outside of the family.
Storen said it is important to remember that a child is anyone under the age of 18.
She said the world today is bombarded with sexual messages and images that portray teenagers as sophisticated and worldly, but they are not. They are children, she said, and should never be treated as an adult friend.
Discussing issues of a sexual nature with a minor, no matter how mature they may seem, is crossing the boundary of accepted behavior and should be reported.
Children also need to know it is OK to say no to an adult. Saying no to grown-ups can be tricky business for children who are taught, from day one, that adults are the bosses.
Parents should talk to children often about their rights, such as the right to say no to an adult who wants them to do something that makes them nervous, such as go somewhere alone.
Storen recommends “A Very Touching Book for Little People and for Big People” by Jan Hindman, which helps explain in clear, simple terms when it is all right to tell a grown-up no.
For more information visit www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/preventionmonth.