Child Sexual Abuse is a Systemic Problem
By: Poonam Melwani, LLMSW, Child Advocate Specialist @ WC SAFE
Child sexual abuse is a systemic problem. One in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused before the age of 181. Child survivors of assault come from diverse socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, geographic, and educational backgrounds2. More than 85% of adults who have reported being sexually abused as children never disclosed the assault to anyone at the time3. In most cases, there are many factors that affect a child’s decision to disclose or withhold this sensitive information.
Children are often told by perpetrators to keep the abuse as a secret. They are threatened that if they tell their parents, they will get in trouble or there will be some other negative consequence. Some children blame themselves or believe they deserve the pain as punishment. Alternatively, some children are bribed with gifts, which often confuses the child in determining how they feel about the perpetrator (e.g. “They hurt me but then buys me a video game/toy/candy, so they must actually love me.”). Due to fear and confusion, many children don’t know who to approach about the assault4.
Additionally, children must learn what feels comfortable and who to talk to when they feel violated. They should be educated on how to identify the difference between a good touch and a bad touch5. If a bad touch occurs, children should be able to feel confident in knowing that they can try to prevent it or speak to someone immediately before it progresses. Therefore, it’s important to have these conversations with children. We need to provide them with a safe space and the proper education. As parents and loved ones, it is our responsibility to protect them and model consent (saying “No” is okay).
Offenders come in many forms. The phenomenon “stranger danger” is the least likely form. Most often, the offender is a family member (cousin, father, step-father, uncle, mother’s boyfriend, etc.) or a friend of the family (brother’s friend, neighbor, etc.) and the abuse is taking place in the home6. Women can certainly be offenders as well, but males are generally more likely to victimize children. Assaults can happen in churches, schools, or a friend’s home, especially if the child is left alone with an adult who has authority over them. It is important to distinguish healthy and unhealthy boundaries between adults and children. If an adult is spending a significant amount of time with your child and seems to frequently find ways to be alone with them, you may want to question the relationship and establish healthy boundaries.
It is important to watch out for this type of grooming behavior from other adults. Does the other adult want to spend an inappropriate amount of time with your child? Do they request alone time with your child or find ways to be alone with them? Do they shower them with gifts or giving them special treatment? Are they violating boundaries? Do they talk about other children’s body parts? Did your child mention having a secret with the adult?
While it’s extremely important that children understand an acceptable relationship with an adult, it is equally important that adults are also able to identify healthy and unhealthy relationships with children. When non-offending parents find out their child has been assaulted, they always wish they had known of any unhealthy behavior immediately so that they could have prevented the assault. Often, parents will blame themselves for not noticing signs sooner7.
In child sexual abuse, neither the child nor the non-offending parent is ever to blame. Only the perpetrator is at fault.
In addition to being a familial concern, child sexual abuse is a societal and public health concern as well. Individuals that have experienced child abuse have higher risks of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Furthermore, children who have never received proper care, have a higher risk of depression, cancer, heart disease, substance abuse, STDS, and many other physical and psychological problems in adulthood8.
If your child tells you or someone you know that they have been sexually assaulted, believe them and provide them with a safe space to talk. Remember, the best method to help children recover is to provide them with emotional support, empathy and patience during this difficult time.
To learn more about child sexual abuse and ways to recognize grooming behavior in adults, please visit Stop it Now! at http://www.stopitnow.org/.
You can learn more about Wayne County SAFE’s Child Advocacy program and the services we offer to residents of metro Detroit on our website at www.wcsafe.org. To schedule a counseling appointment or speak to an advocate, please contact us at (313) 964-9701. If you would like to schedule a SANE exam for your child, please contact our nurse pager at (313) 430-8000.
1. Stop it Now! (2008). Prevent child sexual abuse: Facts about sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Retrieved April 10, 2017 from http://www.stopitnow.org/sites/default/files/documents/files/prevent_child_sexual_abuse.pdf
2. Prevent Child Abuse America. (n.d.) Prevent child sexual abuse: Fact sheet. Retrieved April 28, 2017 from http://www.preventchildabuse.org/images/docs/sexualabusefactsheet.pdf
3. Stop it Now! (2008). Prevent child sexual abuse: Facts about sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Retrieved April 1, 2017 from http://www.stopitnow.org/sites/default/files/documents/files/prevent_child_sexual_abuse.pdf
4. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2012). Understanding child sexual abuse definitions and rates. Retrieved April 15, 2017 from http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/NSVRC_Publications_TalkingPoints_Understanding-Child-Sexual-Abuse-definitions-rates.pdf
5. Stop it Now! (2008). Prevent child sexual abuse: Facts about sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Retrieved April 1, 2017 from http://www.stopitnow.org/sites/default/files/documents/files/prevent_child_sexual_abuse.pdf
6. Stop it Now! (2008). Prevent child sexual abuse: Facts about sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Retrieved April 1, 2017 from http://www.stopitnow.org/sites/default/files/documents/files/prevent_child_sexual_abuse.pdf
7. Yamamoto, D. (2015). The advocate’s guide: Working with parents of children who have been sexually assaulted. Enola, PA: National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
8. Cashmore, J., & Shacker, R. (2013). The long term effects of child sexual abuse. Australian Institute of Family Studies, 11, 1-29.
About Poonam Melwani
Poonam Melwani, LLMSW, Child Advocate Specialist, completed her Masters in Social Work from Silberman School of Social Work – Hunter College in New York City and has her limited license in Social Work to practice in Michigan. While obtaining her MSW, Ms. Melwani was employed by Partnership for Children to provide counseling and academic advisement to adolescents. She also has experience working with adults in a clinical and medical setting. As a volunteer, she provided emotional support to survivors of sexual assault through RAINN’s online hotline. Her clinical interests include working with anxiety and depression as it relates to trauma. While she has extensive experience in working in a clinical setting, Ms. Melwani was also an administrator at American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in NYC for 10 years.
At Wayne County SAFE, Ms. Melwani is the Child Advocate Specialist and provides counseling and advocacy to youth 12 and older and as well secondary support to non-offending family members. Ms. Melwani has a passion for working with youth and adults, women-based issues, underserved populations, and is mindful of different cross-cultural perspectives when working with clients. She has an interest in utilizing TF-CBT, Motivational Interviewing, Mindfulness, and Animal Assisted Therapy with survivors of sexual assault. Ms. Melwani is a certified Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid responder and has completed numerous trainings on trauma informed care. To schedule a counseling appointment with Ms. Melwani, please contact her at (313) 964-9701.