Training childcare professionals to reduce childhood sexual abuse

Published in PREVENTION ACTION on Jan. 4, 2016

Teachers, daycare workers, and clergy are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the reports of sexual abuse to child protective services in the US. But programs that prepare these professionals to recognize and prevent abuse are rare. A brief training program called Stewards of Children aims to fill the gap.

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can have life-long negative effects on all those involved. Most CSA interventions have focused on parents and children – neglecting the unique place of educators and childcare workers.

Professionals are the most frequent reporters of maltreatment to child services, as well as having frequent contact with large numbers of children. They may be in a position to identify abuse among the children they work with and to prevent it within their own organizations. But to be effective in this role, they need to know what to look for and how to respond.

An American program, Stewards of Children, is one of relatively few aimed at adults working in childcare. A recent study found that the program improved CSA knowledge, attitudes, and preventive behaviors among participants.

Child sexual abuse: a problem with far-reaching consequences

CSA is a widespread problem with far-reaching negative consequences such as increased risk of mental and physical health problems. Many interventions aimed at reducing sexual abuse are targeted at children and aim to improve their knowledge, competencies, or coping skills. Parent-focused programs, which increase knowledge of CSA, are built on the idea that parents will talk to their children about it.

Less has been done to target childcare professionals, however, and few studies have rigorously examined the effectiveness of programs that do. This is where Stewards of Children comes in. It was developed by a non-profit organization called Darkness to Light. Stewards is a 2.5 hour workshop that trains adults how to recognize, respond to, and prevent CSA. It can be delivered in two forms: in person or via the web.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina recruited 352 participants from churches, daycare centers, and schools in Oregon, Georgia, and South Carolina. Participants were randomly allocated to one of three conditions: in- person Stewards training, web-based Stewards training, or a wait-list control group who received no intervention in the time period. About 80% of participants in each treatment group completed the training.

The training addressed topics such as ways of talking about CSA with adults and children, recognizing the signs of CSA, how to respond when a child discloses CSA, and how to involve the community in prevention.

Participants were assessed at three time points: pre-intervention, post-intervention and at a 3-month follow-up assessment. The study investigated three different outcomes: knowledge, attitudes, and prevention behaviors.

Promising results

The study found positive results from both in-person and web-based training, and there was no substantial difference in the results from the two methods of program delivery.

At post-intervention, program participants demonstrated more knowledge about CSA and were better able to debunk myths than those in the waitlist condition. During the three months after the program, Stewards participants also increased their self-reported preventive behavior more than those in the waitlist group. Differences were statistically significant but modest in size.

Despite the positive results, there are some limitations. First, the design allowed only for post-test assessment of knowledge and attitudes. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the designers, who wanted to reduce the risk that participants would focus their attention on the topics from a pre-program questionnaire. However, it meant that it was not possible to compare pre- and post-test results on knowledge and attitudes.

Second, this study had no way to measure if improved knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors had any effect on the number of CSA incidences. The authors suggest that long-term research would be needed to explore the relationship between CSA training and actual abuse prevention or detection.

The study also supports the use of web-based interventions. In this case, the web-based version of Stewards was just as effective as the in-person version. Web-based programs have the potential to reach a large number of people and are inexpensive to deliver.

Successful CSA prevention has major public health benefits, so investing in the development and implementation of evidence-based strategies should be a high priority. Adult-focused programs alongside child-focused programs are likely to be more successful when used together.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children® training.

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Reference
Rheingold, A., Zajac, K., Chapman, J., Patton, M., Arellano, M., Saunders., & Kilpatrick, D. (2014). Child sexual abuse prevention training for childcare professionals: An independent multi-site randomized controlled trial of Stewards of Children. Prevention Science. DOI 10.1007/s11121-01

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