April is Child Abuse Prevention month. The story below aims to help adults protect the children in their lives from abuse.
Often parents conclude that certain caregivers are “safe” because the caregiver is too young to present a risk, is married with children, or is a woman. These attitudes put kids at risk, a local expert says.
Margaret Ochoa, former assistant county attorney for Jefferson County where she advised the Department of Human Services on child protection matters, now writes and lectures on the topic, including facilitating safe environment trainings for the Denver Archdiocese. She is a member of Light of the World Church in Littleton. She spoke to the Denver Catholic Register about ways parents can protect their children.
“Watch for red flags,” Ochoa said. “A potential offender might violate a child’s physical, emotional and behavioral boundaries.”
Physical boundaries limit who, where, and how we allow others to touch us, she said. Emotional boundaries limit how much personal information we share and how much time we spend with others. Behavioral boundaries provide the rules we follow.
“Watch for people who touch too much,” Ochoa said, “who assume an intimate relationship with a child—either physical or emotional—or who don’t respect a family’s rules.”
Juveniles as perpetrators
While juveniles are often thought of as victims, they can also be perpetrators, Ochoa said. “Minors commit about 30 percent of the total sexual abuse incidents reported to the police,” she
said. “The younger the victim, the greater the chance that her molester is a minor.”
Fox31 News recently reported that there are more than 300 registered sex offenders attending Colorado schools. They attend school with their crimes maintained confidentially, and with safety plans in place. These potential predators present a risk to the rest of the student population.
“Kids must be educated to keep themselves safe,” Ochoa said. “That job falls on parents and other loving adults.”
Explain to your child that any behavior that reaches a point of aggression or bullying is inappropriate and possibly criminal, she advised.
Pedophilia is a condition in which an adult has primary sexual attraction toward children. A common myth surrounding pedophiles is that they are homosexual.
“Most pedophiles (79 percent) identify as heterosexual in their adult relationships, so the belief that your child is safe in the care of a ‘family man’ puts your child at risk,” Ochoa said. “Many children have been victimized by married fathers. Some even exploit their own children to gain access to victims.”
“Prepare your child to be away from you by discussing personal safety rules much like you teach traffic and household safety,” Ochoa said. “Prohibit your child from entering private places in the homes of others, such as bedrooms of parents or older siblings. Enforce those same rules when children visit your home.”
It is also important to be aware that women molest about 10 percent of female victims and about 15 percent of boys, Ochoa said.
“The belief that women can’t be offenders puts children at risk,” she said, adding that some believe that women who molest adolescent boys don’t really harm them.
“This double standard is repugnant,” Ochoa emphasized. “Along with the obvious harm to the boys’ spirits is a loss of innocence; as well as potential exposure to disease, pregnancy, disruption in future relationships, substance abuse, poor academic performance, and risky sexual behaviors.”
Victims of female offenders frequently fail to report the abuse, which complicates their recovery. “Regardless of the gender of their perpetrator, 40 percent of male victims never report,” Ochoa said. “Thirty percent of girls never do.”
Make sure your child understands guidelines regarding touch, she said. Teach your child that no one is allowed to touch him or her any place that would be covered by a swimming suit except those few people who help keep them clean and healthy. Reinforce this rule in the presence of their pediatrician. Use anatomically correct language, and teach them which parts are private.
“Sexual offenders often screen for potential victims using this test,” Ochoa said. “A kid who can communicate clearly about body parts is a threatening witness and might be passed over for one who has not been empowered with this tool. This is a good time to remind your child that their body is a blessed gift from God, and that he has a special plan for each of us.”
That message should be reinforced repeatedly and modified as your child grows and develops.
Check that the programs in which your child participates have open physical space so kids can’t be secluded from the group, Ochoa advised.
“Ensure that background checks are done, but be aware that the vast majority of sexual offenders haven’t been convicted,” she cautioned, adding that’s it important to check references.
Signs of abuse
Victims of sexual abuse show some common characteristics. Watch for sudden changes in routines, or increases in moodiness, aggression, or depression. Bedwetting or soiling after a child has been toilet trained can indicate emotional distress. Decline in academic performance can also be an indicator.
“Increased sexualized behavior can point to abuse, but be aware that genital touching is a behavior that is common, even in young children,” Ochoa said. “Kids exhibiting this behavior should be educated by loving adults to value their sexuality in a private way in order to protect them.
“None of these are definitive indicators that your child has been abused,” Ochoa cautioned.
“There are often physiological reasons for these behaviors.”
If you have specific questions, Ochoa advised contacting your pediatrician to learn whether your child’s conduct is within normal limits.
Catholic institutions have been proactive in requiring that employees and volunteers undergo safe environment training before instructing and interacting with youth, Ochoa said.
“Such training is effective in preventing child abuse by exposing warning signs which expose suspect behaviors,” she said.