Guest commentary: Protect your child, thoughts from a sexual abuse survivor
I was sexually assaulted by an older neighbor boy when I was 4 and 5 years old. That is a challenging, difficult statement for most people to read, and even more challenging for me to write. But I am not alone.
Rarely a week goes by without a jarring newspaper headline detailing childhood sexual abuse: a coach, a schoolteacher, a church elder, a father. Childhood sexual abuse is a crime that is far more prevalent than most people believe because most children do not report if they are being abused.
“Childhood sexual abuse is one of the biggest public health problems that children and adults will face in their lifetimes, causing the most serious array of short- and long-term consequences,” said Jenny Stith, executive director of the WINGS Foundation in Denver.
While many children are taught to be aware of “stranger danger,” the sad fact is that someone they know is almost always the abuser. About 90 percent of children who are sexually abused suffer that harm from family members, someone close to the family or one of their classmates in school.
“Many people live lives with serious post-traumatic stress symptoms including anger, shame, guilt and a decreased sense of self-worth,” said mental health therapist Meghan Hurley, River Bridge Regional Center in Glenwood Springs. “And the sad fact is that if we can reach them when the abuse is going on or shortly after we can greatly help their lives and decrease their suffering going forward.”
While the subject of childhood sexual abuse can be troubling to talk about, there is good news. The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have made everyone more aware about the issue of sexual harassment, and multiple celebrities, both female and male, have disclosed that their sexual harm happened to them when they were children.
As more people tell their truth about their past trauma, and how it affected them over their lifetime, more survivors are encouraged to come forward and get the help with the long-term effects of that earlier trauma and how it has affected their behaviors and physiological changes in their body.
Recent increased media awareness also encourages more parents and teachers (the No. 1 profession that spots abuse) to look for ways in which they can best protect children.
These parents, teachers and caregivers look to organizations like Denver’s Parenting Safe Children (who recently held a sold-out workshop in Carbondale) for information on what they can do to keep kids safe. Founder Feather Berkower teaches how knowledge can help protect your children. Children need to know about their bodies, the real names of intimate body parts instead of cute terms and what’s appropriate afor other people to see and touch. They need to learn this information from you rather than from an uninformed childhood friend or worse. Who do you want to teach your children about sex, you or an abuser?
In addition to general information about their anatomy, you also can greatly increase the safety of your children by creating appropriate body safety rules and making sure teachers, coaches, church leaders, babysitters and any adult or older child who comes into contact with your children know about these rules.
I recently interviewed a 14-year-old accomplished gymnast from the Denver-metro area with soaring aspirations. But over a period of months, her 40-year-old coach used attention, praise and other classic grooming techniques to draw her closer to him until he inappropriately touched her, and there was no longer any question about his real intentions. Fortunately, the girl’s mother had gone through a Parenting Safe Children’s workshop, and she quickly recognized what was going on. The coach was fired from the gym where he worked, but Denver police have not prosecuted him, and he is once again working with another set of young, impressionable girls.
While I suffered from an array of behaviors and physical consequences for more than 40 years because of my early sexual abuse, I was able to get help, support and make my life better. Others who have been sexually abused can do the same.
Going forward, the patchwork of laws across our country can be more uniformly enforced. Survivors of early trauma should be encouraged to seek help through therapy and support groups. And perpetrators or organizations should be held accountable no matter how many years have passed. Over 20 states in our country have laws that limit a survivor from seeking justice from their abuser.
For more information about childhood sexual abuse, getting help and learning how to best protect your child, contact River Bridge Regional Center in Glenwood Springs (www.river bridgerc.org), WINGS Foundation in Denver (www.wingsfound.org) or Parenting Safe Children (parentingsafechildren.com) in Denver.
Christie Somes is currently collaborating with Steve Alldredge on “Meet Carey Jones,” a book about her healing process from childhood sexual abuse and the latest information on the issue and prevention. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.