Child abuse most often occurs in the home, and 90% of all child abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way, according to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse.
That same organization estimates that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
The majority of victims never tell.
Local schools, a key line of defense in abuse reporting and prevention efforts, are getting tools from the Four Corners Child Advocacy Center to help them prevent child sex abuse and recognize the signs of abuse when it happens.
“We need to intervene early, which is why it’s really important for me to engage the teachers in the elementary school,” said Rose Jergens, executive director of the center, a local nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse and supporting abused children.
The center offers training in a variety of topics, including recognizing and reporting child abuse, nurturing healthy sexual development, healthy touching for children and youths and addressing sexting with teens. The classes, Jergens said, can help teachers identify trouble signs and empower children against predators. The center offers up to $50 in gift certificates for elementary school teachers who participate.
Jergens said that although they would like all educators to take part, they target those who work with the most vulnerable age groups.
“Usually around 9 is about when we start hearing about reports of abuse,” Jergens said. “And that’s usually when kids are realizing that there’s something that’s not like all the other kids.”
Her experience is not unusual – about 20% of child sex abuse victims are younger than 8, the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse says.
Kayla Maynard is a preschool and kindergarten teacher at the Children’s Kiva Montessori School in Cortez. She attended her first Advocacy Center training session about six years ago and has since taken every training class the center has offered.
“I started attending trainings when I became a parent to try to educate myself on how to keep my own daughter safe,” Maynard said. “And then when I went back to work and started teaching again, I found quickly that our community, our children in the community, needed the same protection.”
Preparation and knowledge are key.
“I was in the military, so I’ve always been taught that you fight how you train,” Maynard said. “And so it was really important to me to have the training, in case a child ever disclosed to me, I would know exactly what to do.”
The layers of educationPreventive classes focus on helping children gain control of their bodies, then layer on new knowledge at appropriate grade levels.
Jergens has a pin in her office with one of her most important messages: “Penis and vagina are not bad words.”
“But we are so afraid of those words,” she said. Using the words empowers children, Jergens said, making them “a little too savvy” for predators.
“There is a lot of research that suggests that kids who know their body parts, know the anatomical name – not the cutesy names – are less attractive to perpetrators,” she said.
Along these lines, helping children take control of their bodies involves teaching them to understand their own feelings. Sometimes, a child may feel uncomfortable or “icky” but can’t identify the root cause of the feeling.
Adults can help by incorporating such conversations into daily activities.
“Even as we’re changing their diaper or taking them to the bathroom, we’re teaching them about boundaries,” Jergens said. “Who’s allowed to do this? Who is the one who can change your diaper?”
Maynard said she and her colleagues are working to incorporate the conversations in schools. They try to acknowledge everything their students tell them, and at the beginning of the school year, they work on helping students understand their feelings.
“The first few weeks of school, we teach them how to identify their emotions, how they’re feeling,” she said.
Another part of the training focuses on setting precedents, empowering children in safe scenarios so that they aren’t victimized in other situations. For example, adults should always ask permission before touching a child – even for hugging, Jergens said.
“As children, if we would have been empowered to say ‘no’ to an unwanted hug, we might not have been in some of these situations that we’re in as we get older,” she said.
Maynard said a school policy discourages a one-on-one meeting with a child, so kids don’t think that’s OK.
“You don’t mean any harm to a child by taking them into a room alone, but you want to set the tone,” she said.
The challenges of reporting abuseWhen education and empowerment fail to prevent abuse, though, responsibility shifts to educators who must report child abuse.
Reporting isn’t just the logistical act of calling Child Protective Services – it’s identifying the signs, asking the right questions and letting children know that their story is valid and will be heard.
“We know that there’s a lot of healing that comes from a child’s story being heard and being believed,” Jergens said. “But if we don’t ever even give them that opportunity, then they’re just going to live with the fact that somebody should have seen that.”
In the majority of abuse cases, children don’t report, meaning it’s up to adults to realize when it’s happening. And reporting can be scary. Teachers may feel like they’re ruining a family or worry that the act could push parents to keep their children at home, Jergens said.
“How can I be that shining place in the universe to help a child?” she said. “I think that we need to feel like heroes. ... I think most reporters feel icky about having to make a report, as opposed to empowered about making a report.”
Maynard said training and preparation helped her to handle a situation after a young girl disclosed to her.
“It made her feel funny in her stomach, that’s what she told me,” she said. “She was able to identify correctly where she had been touched. And in the long run it helped her get the help she needed.”
Awareness in the classroom?Implementing these practices and lessons in school is not always easy, though. In addition to the summer series, the Child Advocacy Center has been asking teachers in Montezuma County to incorporate its curriculum into the classroom, particularly during April – National Child Abuse Awareness Month.
Most Montezuma County classrooms participated in their April campaign, Jergens said. But the lessons can be uncomfortable – either because teachers worry about parent pushback or because they hesitate to discuss taboo topics such as inappropriate touching, secrets and consent.
“It is uncomfortable,” Maynard said. “But the more you practice it, the less uncomfortable it gets. And the children are so receptive.”
Jergens said that she understands teachers are already burdened, and tacking on extra tasks can seem overwhelming. But by preventing child abuse early on, educators can help prevent serious psychological and behavioral health issues that develop from early childhood trauma, she said.
“These kids are suffering,” she said. “They’re ending up with trauma, PTSD, post-traumatic stress. And they’re having to live with that for the rest of their lives because it’s not being addressed.”