The silence that may follow sexual abuse

What kids should be taught about speaking up after the unthinkable happens

At the time, I was an 11-yearold girl in a Catholic school uniform returning books to the public library. As I passed a group of teenage boys, they grabbed me, slammed me against the book deposit box and groped between my legs while I silently tried to shield myself and shove their many hands away.

I didn't tell anyone; I was so ashamed.

It wasn't until I was an adult and reunited with my best friend from elementary school on Facebook that we discovered we both had similar experiences. What bothers me most decades later is not only that this happened to us, but that we both buried it deep inside of ourselves - thinking it was our fault and something to be ashamed of - until 40 years later when we started discussing our childhood experiences and wondered why we kept such secrets from each other.

And yet even though we have been able to share what had happened as adults, we also talked about whether the children of today feel more comfortable and confident about reporting abusive incidents like this.

READ MORE: Tips for talking to kids about rape

Does your child lay mute at night replaying episodes she is too ashamed or terrified to reveal? Does she think she is protecting someone by not reporting abuse? Or blaming herself for what happened? How many more young people - like myself and my best friend - remain silent?

According to a national resource guide dealing with sex offenders published by the U.S. Department of Justice, "Disclosure of sexual abuse is often delayed; children avoid telling because they are either afraid of a negative reaction from their parents or of being harmed by the abuser. As such, they often delay disclosure until adulthood.

Factors such as the relationship to the perpetrator, age at first incident of abuse, use of physical force, severity of abuse, and demographic variables, such as gender and ethnicity, impact a child's willingness to disclose abuse." And what if the perpetrator is not a stranger and the episode is not isolated?

According to the Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse, more than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. U.S. Department of Justice national statistics confirm that only about 10 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child, 60 percent are known to the child but are not family members (for example family friends, babysitters, child care providers, and neighbors) and about 30 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are related to the victim.

READ MORE: Dr. Paul Schwartz discusses having the sex talk with teens

In addition to the assault at the library, a family member also fondled me as a child. It was clearly sexual. I was nine years old. Young enough to feel powerless to stop him, but old enough to be conscious that what was happening to me was wrong. Still, I kept silent.

Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. In a 2012 report noted on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), 26 percent of sexual abuse victims are 12-14 years old and 34 percent are younger than 9 years.

Building awareness early
First, become informed. When I was growing up sexual abuse wasn't given media attention, it wasn't looked for, it wasn't discussed. Now there is awareness and attention from the media, schools and social services. Parents can be trained to look for signs, and children can be taught about rejecting and reporting inappropriate behavior.

Erin's Law makes child sex abuse prevention education mandatory in schools, starting with kindergarten. On December 10, 2015 President Obama signed SB1117, giving federal funding for Erin's Law. As of June 2015, Erin's Law is in 26 states and pending in 17 more, including New York. Each year the Personal Safety Program of the Center for Prevention of Childhood Abuse in Dutchess County provides sexual abuse prevention education to more than 15,000 children using interactive discussions and age-appropriate materials.

The program helps children distinguish between affectionate and inappropriate touches and instructs them on how and what to do if someone breaks the "private part rules."

READ MORE: Download your copy of "Your Kid's Body Guide"

What a parent can do
Amy Quinn, director of educational services with The Center for Prevention of Child Abuse, advises parents to create openings for dialogue by asking their children what they would do in different situations such as: "What would you do if someone started touching you in ways you did not like?" and "What if you were told to keep a bad secret?"

She says it is important to emphasize to children that there are only potentially three legitimate reasons that a trusted adult with a parent's permission would have cause to look at or touch a child's private areas: health, hygiene or for a tick/safety check.

"It's important for parents to point out adults your children would feel comfortable talking to if they had a problem," Quinn says. "Remind them it is never their fault if they are tricked into a touch. If your child discloses information to you regarding something that may have happened, remain calm, believe what they tell you, support your child's feelings, assure them they did the right thing by telling you, and report concerns to proper authorities."

"Our educators also instruct fourth and fifth grade students regarding Internet safety, cyberbullying, and sexting," Quinn explains. "Sixth grade students receive an hour presentation on Internet safety and sexting, which are growing increasingly more prevalent with rapid advances in technology."

READ MORE: Is child abuse on the rise in the Hudson Valley?

National statistics
According to the Center for Sex Offender Management, approximately 150,000 adult sex offenders are currently in state and federal prisons throughout the United States. Between 10,000 and 20,000 are released from jail - and back into communities across the country - each year Parents need to be aware that the Internet gives sexual predators increased opportunities -- and anonymity -- to search out new victims.

The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website states the most common form of contact is via online chat rooms, and one in 25 youths asked reported they had received an online sexual solicitation in which the solicitor tried to make plans to meet in person.

The Personal Safety Program advises parents to establish Internet house rules: Never meet anyone in person whom you've only met online, and don't post your full name or divulge personal information such as where you live or attend school. It is also important to monitor your child's social media use and point out the photographs that might unintentionally reveal identifying information.

The New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services also maintains a website with a registry of convicted sex offenders. Arming yourself with information and keeping an open dialogue with your children are the best steps to take in keeping them safe.

Linda Freeman is a Hudson Valley writer, yoga instructor and swing dance teacher. She has been a contributor to Hudson Valley Parent since 2014.