One of the most powerful moments at the recent conference of the National Center for Victims of Crime was a presentation by Al Chesley, former National Football League linebacker, about the sexual abuse he experienced as a youth and his decades-long struggle to recover from the crime. Now a passionate victim advocate, Al promotes policies to protect young sexual abuse victims. His message: we can and must do more to help the victims of this crime.
Child sexual abuse is rampant in our country. One in three girls and one in seven boys will experience sexual violence at some point during their childhood. Child sexual abuse undermines children's security—at school, home, and everywhere they go.
More than 78,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported and substantiated in 2006,according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the real numbers of abused children may be anywhere between 260,000 and 650,000 a year. And because the crime is so seldom reported to law enforcement agencies, predators remain free to destroy young lives.
There are many reasons why children do not report the crime.
The abuser may be a friend, neighbor, or even a relative—who is close to the child. Al Chesley's abuser, a neighbor who was a District of Columbia police officer, was a trusted, respected member of the community. Children may fear that no one will believe them or that they will be blamed for the abuse. They may be confused about the seriousness of the crime, and they are often overwhelmed with shame.
Abusers often threaten to kill or hurt their victims or their families if the children disclose the abuse. So the children often remain silent, suffering alone for years.
Most U.S. adults understand the seriousness of these offenses against children, but they don't necessarily act when they encounter them. They may not recognize the signs, or they may fear raising suspicions they can't prove or making things more difficult for the child.
Yet adults must find ways to protect young sexual abuse victims.
Parents, teachers, neighbors, coaches, and youth group leaders should learn the signs that a child may be a sexual abuse victim. Youths may seem distracted, angry, unhappy, withdrawn—to suffer from nightmares or other signs that something unusual is going on.
Young children may regress to earlier behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking. They may resist removing clothes at appropriate times, such as bedtime, or mimic adult sexual behavior when playing with toys.
Teens may engage in self-injury, such as cutting or burning; begin drug or alcohol abuse; become sexually promiscuous; run away from home; or become depressed or anxious. While these symptoms may reflect a variety of problems, they may also suggest sexual abuse and should not be ignored.
Adults can also look for signs that youth are trying to disclose the abuse.
Young people may disclose bits of information, not always in sequence, that suggest sexual abuse. They may say, for example, that a specific person makes them uncomfortable, without saying why. They may mention a “friend “who is being abused but fears telling anyone.
If the adult responds supportively, youths may start to share more about what is bothering them. Adults should listen attentively, affirm what the youth is saying, and involve a victim advocate to connect the youth with counseling and help with reporting the abuse. (Resources include Childhelp USA and RAINN.)
Preparing a young sexual assault victim for the reporting and investigation of these crimes is a process too complex to describe here. Disclosures to mandated reporters—such as teachers and health care workers who must report the crime to child protection authorities—will begin a personally and legally challenging process that requires emotional and physical safety planning for victims.
Children are likely to need professional victim advocacy and counseling throughout the legal process and recovery from sexual abuse.
All adults should learn to recognize and help these victims, be ready to listen, and be willing to help find the professional support they need. Caring, trustworthy adults who take the risk of helping these young victims can open the door to safety, recovery, and hope.
Mai Fernandez is a regular blogger for The Crime Report and executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She welcomes comments from readers.