Child sex abuse is often called a crime of secrecy and silence. However, studies find as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will become victims by the age of 18. No foolproof way exists to prevent sexual predators from reaching your child, but there are ways parents can protect their families.
Foothills Child Advocacy Center Program Coordinator Jennifer Kline conducts 200 forensic interviews a year with children who are suspected as being victims of abuse.
"We give the child an opportunity to talk about what happened," Kline said. "To ask them to talk about a horrible sexual experience is extremely difficult."
Police investigators watch in a separate room or later on a DVD record of the interview as children share sordid details of sexual abuse.
"All we need is a suspicion," said Kline. "You do not have to do your own investigation. A parent should not grill their child."
Parents and caregivers can take steps to protect children from sexual predators - starting with open communication.
Kline said, "If kids know their parents are willing to listen to them, they're going to be a lot more willing to talk about things."
Kline says to take cues from those conversations. If a child's feelings about a friend, family member, caregiver, or a place changes suddenly, there may be a deeper problem. Also, know who is spending time around your kids.
"We have a lot of parents where the child was left alone with someone who had a history of sexual abuse," Kline said.
Kline recommends questioning the policies of places your child visits - including churches, schools, and camps.
Kline said, "Make sure they have policies about one-on-one contact with other children and adults and volunteers."
Eighty percent of sexual abuse happens when kids are left alone in a one-on-one situation. Kline strongly encourages parents to teach children they have private parts that no one should see or touch, and those body parts do not have cutesy nicknames.
"We call an arm an arm, a leg a leg," said Kline. "Why don't we call a vagina a vagina and a penis a penis? Children are more vulnerable to sex offenders if they don't know the correct words for body parts."
"What I've seen is that kids get frustrated not being able to say what happened," Hernandez said. "The most important lesson is to believe a child, no matter what, no matter how outrageous the story may sound."
A statewide study finds only one-third of child sex abuse victims ever speak with a counselor about what happened.
Hernandez said, "Often this happens from someone they care about and trust the most, so it's hard to tell those kinds of stories and to say, 'It was this person who I loved and thought loved me, but they did those things to me.'"
SARA preaches prevention by encouraging parents to build up a child's self-esteem and demonstrate healthy relationships.
"We're going to stop it with that first cat call, with that first inappropriate touch, and not let it go on to something that's much more serious," said Hernandez.
Counselors and victim advocates say it's important to trust your intuition and report suspected abuse immediately. SARA staffs a 24-hour hotline to report sexual abuse at (434) 977-7273.
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