Rarely a week goes by without a jarring newspaper headline detailing childhood sexual abuse: a coach, a schoolteacher, a church elder or a father. Childhood sexual abuse is a crime that is far more prevalent than most people believe because most children do not tell anyone when they are being abused.
April is national Child Abuse Prevention Month. River Bridge Regional Center, a nationally accredited child advocacy center in Glenwood Springs, is highlighting the issue of sexual abuse and holding its annual fundraiser in Carbondale on April 27.
“Many people live lives with serious post-traumatic stress symptoms, including anger, shame, guilt and a decreased sense of self-worth,” said River Bridge mental health therapist Meghan Hurley. “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.”
Getting help soon after the abuse is one key to healing, and it is the main goal of the 17 children’s advocacy centers in Colorado.
While many children are taught to be aware of “stranger danger,” the sad fact is that 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.
Why did they allow it to happen?
Children are often expected to defer to the wishes or demands of adults, and children are often not given the power to decide for themselves who touches them and in what manner they are touched.
“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 the subject of childhood sexual abuse can be troubling to talk about, there is good news. The #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.
“In recent years, psychiatric literature has proposed ‘the neurobiology of trauma,’” explains Willits psychologist Gerald Alpern, PhD. “This concept purports that, when sexual abuse occurs, there are physiological (hormonal) changes which lead to a collection of behavioral reactions such as freezing, not resisting the advances, and, most importantly, rendering their memory about the event as inconsistent.”
Recent increased media awareness also encourages more parents and teachers (the profession that spots abuse the most) 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. Founder Feather Berkower, who has taught workshops in Carbondale, teaches how knowledge can help protect your children. Children need to know about their bodies and what’s appropriate for other people to see and touch. And they need to learn this information from their parents rather than from an uninformed childhood friend or worse. As Berkower counsels: 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.
Parents also need to know about “engagement and grooming” — the process where the abuser gradually draws a victim into a sexual interaction and is able to maintain that contact in secrecy. Abusers often use this technique to form relationships with potential child victims and their parents prior to the abuse, instilling a false sense of trust in the caregivers and greatly affecting the safety of their child.
Mandatory reporter laws may be in place in your state that typically require people who work closely with children to alert police or the appropriate authorities about suspected abuse. Mandated reporters include teachers, healthcare personnel, mental health professionals, employees in youth-serving organizations, law enforcement and other professions as required by law.
In some states, all adults are considered mandated reporters. This means you are legally responsible for reporting suspected or disclosed childhood sexual abuse.
If a child is in immediate danger, always call 911.
River Bridge, which has served more than 1,800 children and 2,700 family members in the past 11-plus years, is the only child advocacy center between Summit County and Grand Junction.
“About 25 percent of our $650,127 budget depends on fundraising and donations each year,” explains Blythe Chapman, executive director of River Bridge, which started in December 2007 under the national nonprofit, Childhelp. River Bridge broke from that organization in 2012 and formed a local independent nonprofit.
“We have expanded our programs due to an increased demand for services. As a result, this fundraiser is more important than ever,” continues Chapman, who oversees four full-time employees, three part-time employees and a number of contracted forensic interviewers and nurses on staff.
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.riverbridgerc.org), WINGS Foundation in Denver (www.wingsfound.org) or Parenting Safe Children in Denver (parentingsafechildren.com).
Information on purchasing tickets for the Imagine 7 fundraising event in Carbondale on April 27 can be found at: http://rbrcimagine7.eventbrite.com/.