Sexual abuse is not just an East Coast problem. Make no mistake that the sexual abuse in Pennsylvania – and now a high profile case connected to Syracuse University in New York – is a problem everywhere. It happens here. It takes a great deal of moral courage to report child sexual abuse or any kind of child abuse. We fear we will be identified to the perpetrator or that our job might be in jeopardy if we report a colleague. If we know the perpetrator we may doubt the validity of what we saw or what a child has told us. Having moral courage to do what is right is one of the toughest things facing us today.
For more than 443 northeast Indiana children someone had the moral courage and took responsibility between January and October to report child sexual abuse. These courageous individuals decided the child’s wellbeing was more important than their personal doubts or fears, that stopping the nightmare of sexual abuse for a child superseded their own qualms. They found the moral courage to be a child’s protector.
Why report? First of all, we are all protectors of children. We are the child’s voice. The child is counting on you and me. Second, child sexual abuse has long-term effects. Multiple studies show victims grow up to have higher rates of depression and other mental illnesses as well as substance abuse. New research points to long-term physical consequences, including obesity, hypertension, heart disease and a weakened immune system. Teenagers who run away from home are often victims of child sexual abuse.
Third, reporting sexual abuse can help ensure another child does not become a victim. Walking in on a child being sexually assaulted by an adult is not common. What is more common is observing certain behaviors in the child or hearing the child report an adult has inappropriately touched him or her or shown inappropriate sexual behavior around the child. Child behaviors indicative of sexual abuse may include: excessive fear of being left alone with a certain adult; a drop in grades; sudden change of attitude; torn, stained or bloody underclothing; pain, swelling or itching in the genital area; difficult walking or sitting; bruises or bleeding in the genital area; getting an STD; frequent urinary or yeast infections; age-inappropriate seductive behaviors or inappropriate sex play; premature understanding of sex; over-concern for siblings; weight change; suicide attempts, especially in adolescents; or negative reaction to physical contact or affection by any adult or by one particular adult.
If a child talks to you about being touched in their private parts or feeling uncomfortable around an adult, the words will not be those of an adult’s. It will be in the story he or she tells of an encounter with an adult. Take time to listen; listen quietly. Say supportive phrases such as, “It’s good you told me. I will get you help.” Hold back shocked looks and blaming phrases, such as, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” or, “Why would you let him do that to you?” Keep the child talking.
We will move past Penn State, Syracuse and other high profile cases, but they should stand as a reminder that each of us has the responsibility to be protectors of children. To report child abuse, call the hotline at 1-800-800-5556. You can remain anonymous. State law requires the Department of Child Services to protect the identity of those reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.