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 April 13, 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 7   •   Oakland, CA

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What parents need to know to keep
their children safe from sex abuse

Healing of adults from sex abuse is a slow, steady process
What parents need to know to keep
their children safe from sex abuse

Parents used to worry about having the “birds and bees” talk with their children. Now, they have to fret over adding the words “abusers” and “predators” to their vocabulary.

Womazetta Jones has some suggestions for how adults can proceed. She is director of the Safe Environment Office in the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth of the Archdiocese of Chicago. She worked for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for more than 15 years, and was involved with child sex abuse investigation before joining the archdiocese.

Any discussion of such a sensitive issue, she says, should be based on years of building a special relationship between parents and children. Mothers and fathers, Jones notes, “must develop, maintain and foster an ongoing positive relationship with their children. Parents need to listen to their children, talk to their children, and be actively involved in their lives and observant of everything.”

A second prerequisite, she adds, is that parents approach their children to talk about keeping them safe only after they themselves “obtain a fundamental level of understanding regarding the signs and symptoms of abuse, and the behavioral and emotional indicators of such trauma.”

Such prep work, she explains, helps parents “gain a comfort level before discussing the topic with their children. There is a lot of age-appropriate literature available on abuse, and there is also literature available on how to discuss this topic with minors of all ages.”

Jones calls it “critical” for parents to become “properly educated prior to beginning this discussion. It is also very important that parents are comfortable discussing this topic with their children. If the parent is openly uncomfortable or is unable to communicate effectively during the conversation with the minor, it will detract from what parents are trying to accomplish.”

Once educated and comfortable, parents are ready to talk to their children, using appropriate language “based upon their child’s age and cognitive level.”

Teenagers who might be embarrassed about such a conversation or who are less likely to listen to mothers and fathers pose another obstacle to protecting children from abusers. The solution, Jones says, is for parents “to be open, direct, honest and prepared to dialogue. Even if your teenager seems uncomfortable or ‘laughs you off,’ keep talking. When they see that you have educated yourself on the topic and that you are not going to stop, they will begin to listen — and to ask questions.”

As moms and dads talk to their children, they should also make sure to listen themselves, she says, and watch for reactions. “Talk to your child. Listen to your child. Have open, ongoing communication with your child.”

In addition to talking to their children to protect them from abuse, Jones urges parents to learn if any sexual predators live in their neighborhood. If they do, a number of proactive steps can be taken.

“Contact your local police department for verification and to find out the restrictions listed in the registration,” she advises.

“Every registered sex offender has a different set of restrictions, and you need to know what they are to ensure that you inform the authorities if you note violations. Ask your local police department for a print-out of his/her picture and the restrictions. Inform your child that there is a person in the neighborhood who is a danger to children; show them the picture, and tell them if this person ever interacts with them or any child, they should run and tell immediately.”

All of the effort prior to, during and after any discussion of abuse, she says, will help to ensure that “when you talk to your child, you will not scare them. You may, in fact, save them!”

In the end, she emphasizes, what will protect children is parents who care.

“Never get so busy that you forget about your child,” Jontes says. “Never allow your child to get so busy that they forget about you. Make quality time for each other early on and keep it going. Respect each other. Trust each other. Love one another.”

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Healing of adults from sex abuse is a slow, steady process

The healing of adults who were victimized by sex abuse when they were children doesn’t usually happen in courtrooms or press conferences.

Healing is more likely to take root in the quiet repose of a therapist’s office or group counseling session. It’s a process that rarely occurs with a dramatic flourish. It is more likely to begin with a quiet recognition of patterns that have, often without conscious notice, taken over the lives of victims.

Sharon Froom, a counselor with Trauma Recovery Associates in Kalamazoo, Mich., notes that it will often take years for a victim—whether the abuse was perpetrated by a family member, teacher or member of the clergy—to recognize that they have been violated.

“They are stuck,” she notes about many adults who were abused as children. They frequently are inclined to believe that what happened to them was their own fault. Because by definition children lack the experience to know better, they tend to think that their abuse is normative. As they grow into adulthood, some respond by displays of inappropriate anger, addictions, or attempts to disconnect themselves from feelings.

For a counselor, says Froom, it is not vital that the details presented by a victim’s story be completely accurate. A therapist session is not a courtroom trial. A good therapist will recognize that the memory itself has caused a victim to feel violated.

“None of us have perfect linear memory,” she says, adding that family members coming together to remember a shared experience will offer conflicting accounts.

“We don’t go digging for memories,” she says. “That is not where the work is. The work is in regulating feelings.” Recovery can take years, sometimes, a lifetime.

The younger the victim was at the time of the abuse, the more difficult the recovery process can be. Those violated when they were very young, she notes, are often unable to articulate what has happened to them.

“They don’t have a story. It’s stored viscerally. It can be harder to understand,” she says. By contrast, those who were abused as older adolescents are better able to place the context of their experiences in a wider worldview, making healing easier.

Bringing up old cases may be problematic from a legal point of view — with statutes of limitation and faint memories often proving obstacles — but it is valuable from a therapeutic perspective, says Froom, who adds that the goal of effective therapy is “to help people remember without reliving the trauma.”

It’s a fine line, she notes, but it is an important distinction.

“Our goal is to help them remember hard things but not experience it as if they were back in the event,” she says.

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