Stewards of Children leaders said reaching 5,000 adults would bring a tipping point in the community, and they say the child sexual abuse training program is off to a promising start.
In less than a year, the program has trained more than 1,500 adults on ways to prevent child sex abuse, said Tammy Gentzel, executive director of Centre County United Way.
Stewards of Children was launched in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Gentzel, Centre County Youth Service Bureau CEO Andrea Boyles, Centre County Women’s Resource Center Executive Director Anne Ard and Centre County YMCA CEO Howard Long got together in 2012 to decide how best to educate area residents about protecting children.
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The answer, they decided, was adult education.
Boyles said there are many programs in place to educate children and teach them to protect themselves. But adults need to be aware, too, and this program aims to give them the knowledge to do so.
“It’s great that we’re educating children, but the reality is this is our problem — this is an adult problem,” she said.
The organization reminds participants that one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused by their 18th birthday.
Research by the parent group Darkness to Light has shown the local contingent that reaching 5,000 people would equate to enough of a representative sample of every community around the county to be able to raise awareness for the issue in general, Gentzel said.
She said it is then likely that any abused child will have someone close to them who has taken this training and would know the right questions to ask and what actions to take.
The training is designed for the average person, Boyles said. It’s not specifically geared toward people who already have a background in helping children.
She said the program teaches the typical adult how to interact with his or her children and which questions to ask when it appears something might be wrong.
The training also focuses on warning sign detection, not only from unknown people, but also family friends, neighbors or extended family members. Gentzel said it sometimes turns out to be those trusted people who cause problems.
Boyles said it’s important for parents to create a culture of openness with their children and make it normal to ask them questions about what happened at a sleepover or a music lesson, so if at some point they aren’t as open about an experience it would raise a red flag. She added that parents should be direct in their questioning, not just asking what happened but using specific questions.
The 5,000-person tipping point also should constitute a local culture change and Boyles said it could move the community forward to the point where adults can ask tough questions of each other to ensure the safety of children.
“As parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, we have to be able to ask questions and at some level take nothing for granted,” she said.
She said if a parent suspects a child has been abused or has a gut feeling that something has happened, the parent should trust that feeling and seek help from a professional.