Americans share the common vision of a world where children have the opportunity to grow up safe, healthy, and whole. Child sexual abuse threatens this vision. The adverse consequences of child sexual abuse for children and society can last a lifetime, depriving a child of their full potential. Sexual crimes against children are also a factor in many of society’s most significant and expensive problems, including: substance abuse; mental illness; chronic disease; school dropout; teen pregnancy; delinquency; and crime.
All adults share a responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse. An evolution in the field of child sexual abuse prevention is resulting in policies and practices that focus on the responsibility of the adults to keep children safe, rather than placing the burden on the children. Schools and child/youth-serving organizations have a responsibility to provide safe and supportive environments for children and youth. Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to serve and protect all children and youth – not just when a report is filed. And, parents have a responsibility to learn about the techniques and situations which increase the likelihood of child sexual abuse, so those situations can be avoided.
In addition to costing our country over $37 billion per year, child sexual abuse affects the long term emotional and physical health of victims. Adults interacting with children must continually be kept informed about how to prevent abuse, recognize the signs of abuse, and react responsibly when abuse is suspected or observed.
We have the knowledge and the ability to prevent the estimated 500,000 children born in 2012 who are destined to become victims of child sexual abuse, but there remains a gap between what we know and what we are doing with that knowledge. What we need now is the public and political will to say “No child shall be harmed by sexual abuse!” We need the will to articulate and support evidence-informed investments in prevention that make the most sense and ‘cents.’
Child sexual abuse crosses all socioeconomic lines; no child is immune. The magnitude of the problem remains elusive because a large majority of victims never disclose their victimization. Of those that do disclose, only a fraction file an official report. In fact, it is probable that there will be official reports in only about 30% of cases of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Of the cases that do come to the attention of the child welfare system, children living in poverty, unstable homes, and dangerous neighborhoods are far more likely to be victimized. Children exposed to multiple incidents or types of violence have a seven‐fold risk of abuse. Poverty doubles the risk of sexual abuse.
Research has provided us with a great deal of information that can be used to prevent and intervene in child sexual abuse.
• The characteristics of those who abuse children;
• That children are most often abused by those they know, trust and often love;
• The personality, socio‐economic, racial and environmental characteristics of children at greatest risk for abuse;
• Those who abuse children groom their victims and manipulate them into silence;
• The nature of potentially abusive adult/child relationships within youth‐serving organizations;
• What signs to look for in a child we suspect may be the victim of sexual abuse or exploitation; and,
• How to assist adults in overcoming the barriers to taking action to protect and prevent child sexual abuse.
If we engage adults in removing or reducing opportunity, preparing children appropriately, and employing protective strategies for high‐risk children who may not have strong home support, it is logical to assume that there will be fewer incidents of child sexual abuse. If we use this knowledge to identify children who demonstrate signs of sexual abuse, it is reasonable to believe that there will be increased interventions for victimized children.
As an Alliance of organizations focusing on child sexual abuse prevention, Stop It Now!, Darkness to Light, and Prevent Child Abuse America offer their unwavering support for developing a fully realized national effort to protect our children.