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Education key to avoiding child sex abuse

Last Modified: Saturday, November 02, 2013 6:14 PM

By Johnathan Manning / American Press

Stories of child sexual abuse are hard to hear. Harder still is the idea that those stories can hit close to home.

People often find the reality of sexual abuse difficult to accept, not just that sexual abuse happens to children, but that it can happen to their own children or those around them, local child advocates said.

“Because it’s so ugly,” said Cynthia Killingsworth, first assistant district attorney in Calcasieu Parish. “Do you want to believe that your neighbor is molesting your child? No, no way.”

The difficulty parents and adults have in accepting the harsh reality of abuse often translates into a lack of discussion with their children, said Erica Simon, senior coordinator for the Children’s Advocacy Center and CASA programs at Family and Youth Counseling Agency.

“They don’t want to address it,” Simon said. “They don’t talk to their kids about their bodies belonging to them and that it’s OK if you feel uncomfortable to say you’re uncomfortable and to have a plan in place to get away from people that make you feel uncomfortable.”

Killingsworth, Simon and Lt. Michael Primeaux, supervisor of the sex crimes division at the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office, all said education is key to preventing abuse.

“If you’re aware of something, you’re much more likely to be able to do something to prevent it,” Killingsworth said. “I’m not saying that’s always the case, but it is sometimes.”

Primeaux investigated a man who abused his young granddaughter for two years before she realized what he was doing was wrong. It wasn’t until he told her that if she told what was happening, he would go to jail, that she finally connected that his actions were inappropriate.

“She related wrong to going to jail,” Primeaux said.

Simon urges parents to talk to their children and have a plan in place.

“Make sure you have the conversation. That’s number one,” Simon said. “If you can talk to them about this kind of issue, they’ll come to you and talk about anything.”

National statistics say that less than 1 percent of child abuse stories are fabricated by children, said David Duplechain, vice president of advocacy at Family and Youth. That number rises to 5 percent when parents are making the accusation on their behalf, he said.

“They have as much of a right as everybody else,” Killingsworth said. “(Children) cannot speak beyond what they know.”

The Sheriff’s Office has worked more than 450 cases of physical and sexual child abuse this year, Primeaux said. That number is expected to approach 500 by the end of the year, he said.

One in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Adding to the complicated nature of sexual abuse, the abuser is often someone the child knows.

“Usually there’s a big trust factor,” Primeaux said.

Of the 458 physical and sexual abuse cases Family and Youth handled last year, only 17 of the victims did not know their abuser, said Duplechain. In 2011, the agency worked 507 cases, and of those, only 17 did not know their abusers. Included in those numbers are a small number of cases of children who witnessed violence, he said.

“It’s well over 95 percent nationally, and our statistics bear that out in terms of whether they knew the person before,” he said.

“The majority of the cases we work are not strangers; these are people these kids know and have a personal, close relationship with,” Simon said.

Abuse often continues from generation to generation.

Killingsworth said she prosecuted a 20-year-old case after a woman called her concerned that her father was grooming her daughter.

Discussion revealed that the woman had been raped by her father from age 6 until 16 and was now concerned that it would happen to her own daughter, Killingsworth said. Her father told her not to talk to anyone else, even going so far as to drive around the schoolyard to make sure she was staying quiet.

“It was the biggest case of control I’ve ever seen,” Killingsworth said.

Primeaux said the parents in the cases he works sometimes tell him they were abused, too, but never reported the abuse. Included in the cycle of abuse are the abused who grow up to become abusers.

“I never could get that,” Killingsworth said. “I know that’s true, but I can never get that. If you suffered at the hands of somebody, why would you do that to somebody else? There certainly is a cycle.”

Sexual abuse cases, often shocking, have become more and more prominent over the past few decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new story.

“I think it’s been going on for years and years and years — forever,” Killingsworth said. “But the age is different now. People talk about things they didn’t used to talk about. Something that happened in a family like this was very hush-hush. You didn’t air your dirty laundry.”

There is one major change in society that Primeaux, Killingsworth and Duplechain agree has likely led to more abuse: More people are living with boyfriends or girlfriends who are not their children’s parents.

“At the risk of using the evil stepparent stereotype, there are certain demographics that are more likely to be sexually abused than others, and the pinnacle is the single parent with a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend,” Duplechain said. “More of those kids are going to be sexually abused than any other demographic.”

“Maybe that has caused an increase in the number of kids being hurt,” Killingsworth agreed.

Simon gave several tips for parents to prevent child sexual abuse:

Talk to your children.

Have a plan in place.

Teach children the proper names for their body parts. “We work with so many kids who don’t have a proper name for their body parts, so when they’re giving a disclosure of abuse, no one knows what they’re talking about,” she said.

Teach children to be aware of their surroundings at school and know who they can tell.

Look for changes in children’s behavior — returns to earlier childhood behaviors, such as thumb-sucking; clinginess; nightmares; bed-wetting; eating disorders; or changes in grades.

Believe and support your children.

Report abuse to authorities.

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