In 2005, there were 189 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in Rhode Island. Carole Jenny, MD, a specialist in pediatrics and child abuse at Hasbro Children's Hospital, says this number is only "the tip of the iceberg" as most cases of sexual abuse go unreported and undocumented.
Jenny offers tips on how to help protect your children from possible victimization. She also gives advice on how to support victims of abuse and start the healing process.
Jenny says the most important consideration when working to protect your children is to "be very careful about who watches your kids." Make sure that your children's caretakers are people you completely trust. Jenny says she is "amazed when families leave their children with neighbors, casual friends and people they barely know."
Jenny also suggests that parents be wary of "a male friend who insists on babysitting your kids or a person who takes surprising, unusual or excessive interest in your children."
A question that parents don't often consider is, "Who is watching your children in church groups or youth organizations?" Jenny says that parents should always "inquire about the policies regarding whether or not children are left alone with adults. Some groups insist that all children be accompanied by at least two adults at a time." If your child is being left alone with one adult, without any other supervision, you need to be aware.
In order to protect your children, there needs to be open lines of communication between yourself and your kids, as well as within the extended family.
Most molesters are known to the child and the family. They are often family members or family friends. Jenny says, "Family secrets put children at risk. Talk openly in your extended family about others' experiences as children. If someone in your family has been molested in the past, keep your children away from the person who did the molesting."
Jenny expresses her disbelief at how many children are molested by the same people who molested their aunt, uncle, cousin or other relations because the abuse is never revealed. This is often because the victim feels that the family will not believe them or will reject them. If a family member tells you they have been molested, take it seriously. Let your family and your children know that you will always support them.
Most importantly, you need to talk to your children about abuse as soon as they are able to understand language. Make them aware that though most people are trustworthy, there are people out there who may want to harm them. Teach them about the proper names of their body parts and which are private. Jenny says to tell your kids to "trust their instincts. If someone is making them uncomfortable, tell them they should talk to a trusted adult immediately. Let them know they should not be embarrassed to ask for help."
Though it is essential to teach your children about sexual abuse, Jenny says, "it is unfair to make children responsible for their own safety." This is why parents need to be aware and make every effort to see that children are safe and well supervised.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, sometimes children are abused. They may hide the abuse. They may be afraid to tell someone for fear of being judged or may be intimidated into silence by their abuser. This is why it is so important for parents to keep an eye out for warning signs.
"The most reliable indicator that a child is being abused is when the child acts out sexually. Sometimes, a child will show non-specific signs, such as depression or unusual anger," says Jenny. "Having said that, many times children will show no outward signs of abuse."
Since there are cases where there will be no signs, it is essential that your children know that they can talk to you about absolutely anything. Remind them of this often.
If your child tells you that they have been sexually abused in any way, listen and be supportive. Jenny says, "The most important thing a parent can do when a child reports abuse is to believe and support the child. One of the conditions that is known to cause severe psychological problems in abuse survivors is when parents ignore the child's report of abuse. The worst thing a parent can do is say, 'You're lying' or 'I know he would never do such a thing'. "
Also, parents should stay calm and reassure their children. Jenny says that if parents react emotionally in front of the child, he or she will feel frightened and insecure. Let your child know that everything will be okay and you are going to keep him or her safe.
Once it has been established that a child has been abused, counseling should occur immediately. Jenny says that a child who does not deal with his or her abuse becomes an adult at risk for long-term problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, sexual dysfunction, problems with relationships and substance abuse.
"The good news is that psychotherapy can help. Abuse survivors can look forward to a happy, healthy life if they are willing to get into therapy and work hard at getting better," says Jenny. "Psychotherapy with a counselor who has been specifically trained to deal with childhood trauma has been shown to be very effective at helping people overcome the effects of abuse."
If you are a parent who was abused as a child, Jenny strongly urges you seek out psychotherapy. It will help you to heal as well as decrease the chances that your own children will be victimized.
If you suspect a child is being abused, report your concern to the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) immediately by calling 1-800-RICHILD. The hotlines is staffed 24-hours a day. DCYF will investigate and determine whether the child is being abused.