Approximately 3.7 million children in the United States are sexually abused each year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019), placing them at a higher risk of developing psychological and behavioral problems in adulthood. Child sexual abuse is a prevalent societal issue which also occurs through trafficking. In a literature review by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average age of children who are sex trafficked is 12 to 14 years old. Prior childhood sexual abuse was also identified as a common risk factor among trafficked victims and children were more likely to have witnessed domestic violence in their home.
Child sexual abuse prevention is the responsibility of adults and our community. Children should never be blamed or made to think they did something wrong or should have done something different to prevent the abuse from happening. Parents can teach children at a young age the names of their body parts, about the privacy of their bodies, and have open conversations about body safety and inappropriate touching. Parents and caregivers can teach and model healthy communication to allow children to feel more comfortable when having conversations about important issues, encouraging them not to be afraid of sharing concerns with their caregivers or other trusted adults.
Although physical signs of sexual abuse are not commonly noticeable, children often show signs of abuse through changes in their emotions and behavior. Some noticeable changes identified by The National Traumatic Child Stress Network may include anger outbursts, anxiety, depression, withdrawn behavior, and sleeping difficulties. These symptoms are just a few of the trauma effects experienced, which can often lead to depression and PTSD. Counseling can help child victims and their family members learn to gain insight into their feelings and behaviors, and to develop healthy coping skills in response to abusive and traumatic experiences. By recognizing the signs of abuse, you can help prevent a child from being further revictimized.
If a child discloses their sexual abuse to you, there are steps you can take to help the child feel safe and supported as they talk about their abuse. Believing the child is critical even when their story may be difficult to believe or accept. When asking the child questions about the abuse, keep in mind that they may not feel comfortable to talk about the abuse due to feelings of shame, guilt or fear. It is important to listen carefully and to let the child know they are not at fault for the abuse and are now safe
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the appropriate authorities. If you have knowledge or reason to suspect that a child is being sexually abused, you can make a child abuse report to the Child Abuse Hotline of the child’s county of residence or you can contact the respective city’s law enforcement agency of where the abuse incident occurred.
We all share a responsibility to the children in our community. By working together to understand the signs of abuse and methods to provide support, we can protect the youngest members of our society and help create a safer future for all.