Nationally, April is recognized as Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. During the month, we challenge our community to learn more about the role we all play in preventing and protecting children from abuse. Through awareness and prevention, we can make a difference in the lives of so many children.
Statistically, 1 in 5 children has a likelihood of being sexually abused before his or her 18th birthday. This staggering statistic alone raises questions as to what can be done to not only prevent child abuse, but also to accurately and appropriately respond, should one have suspicions of abuse.
Children are often hesitant to disclose abuse because the very nature of child abuse is built on an imbalance of power, secrecy, isolation and shame. Purposefully working to eliminate barriers, we must foster an environment that empowers children to talk about problems they may have, teach them proper terminology for their body parts and let them know that they have the right to establish body boundaries by saying “no” if anyone touches them in a way they do not like.
Families should develop a strong understanding of the difference between a secret (something that you are never to disclose to someone) and a surprise (something that the child will disclose to somebody, and more than just the child and the one person knows about the surprise). Guidelines and terminology are great tools for children to better understand what is or is not appropriate.
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Families should also establish a safety plan with the child. Routinely, adults are advised to make a safety plan in the event of a fire or another emergency; the same should be done regarding child abuse. Children should know what the safety plan is if someone attempts to or does touch them or acts in a way that is inappropriate or uncomfortable. Identify multiple trusted adults within their lives, such as teachers, coaches or other family members who will be able to help them. It is critical to identify multiple trusted adults because, statistically, those who cause harm are those who are considered a trusted adult within the child’s life.
Lastly, opening the lines of communication and developing an environment in which children feel safe and comfortable to talk about the events in their lives lets them know that they have a safe person with whom they can talk about anything, thus eliminating the barrier of shame.
Due to the pervasiveness of child abuse, it is critical to grow in our understanding of the signs of abuse or neglect. While there are physical signs of abuse, such as unexplained injuries (cuts, burns and/or bruises in a pattern or shape), oftentimes there are no physical signs. The most recognizable signs of potential abuse are noticeable changes in the child’s behavior, sleep, actions and/or responses to certain places, situations or people. The child may exhibit poor personal care or hygiene.
If you become aware or suspicious of child abuse, it is vital to report immediately to the proper authorities to ensure the child’s safety and to allow for investigation and intervention. Reports can be made to ChildLine at 800-932-0313. If the abuse you need to report is occurring in front of you, call local law enforcement immediately.
To learn more about the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County, Mount Nittany Health or how you can support children in our community, visit mountnittany.org/ childadvocacycenter.
Kristina Taylor-Porter is the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center at Mount Nittany Health.