If you were sexually assaulted, who would you tell? Now imagine you are a child or adolescent facing that question, and the person abusing you is your mother, father, grandmother or grandfather.
A Robbinstown mother testified before a legislative committee in February that her daughter endured seven years of rape, abuse and incest by her biological father. It happened on the weekends he was supposed to be taking care of her, as the couple had separated. The mother said she missed her daughter’s silent cries for help, such as her wanting to be alone after spending time with him, a change in eating habits and eventually fainting spells.
“Maybe she could have found the words through education and school to have opened up to myself or another adult or friends,” she said.
The mother’s experience led her to urge lawmakers to support a bill, LD 95, sponsored by Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, that would create a task force to study the issue of child abuse in Maine. It could result in recommendations for age-appropriate curricula and ways to increase teacher, student and parent awareness.
Educating Maine schoolchildren about appropriate and inappropriate touches, and how to respond, may not prevent abuse. But it will create active bystanders and may make it easier for abused children to confide in someone they trust. As I am learning in my 40-hour class to become an advocate with Rape Response Services in Bangor, there are many reasons why both adults and children stay silent.
They may be told the abuse is their fault or that bad things will happen to their family if they talk. They may think no one will believe them. Our training manual contains explanations from child victims, in their own words:
“He was too much bigger to me, so I didn’t say nothing,” said a 4-year-old.
“He said if I told my mother, he would kill her and eat her, and he said if I told anyone else, he would just kill me,” said an 8-year-old.
“I was told that I’d be put in a foster home if I said anything,” said an 11 year old.
Some people might think it’s the role of family members to talk with their children. It is, but what if they are the ones committing the crime? Children are sexually assaulted by strangers, but more often they are abused by people they know, whether acquaintances, family members or older children.
Many Maine schools discuss abuse. Or they request a service center with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault to provide free sexual violence prevention education. But the efforts aren’t uniform across Maine schools and can be improved. LD 95, to create the task force, is proposed as an emergency measure, so it will take effect immediately upon passage, which is likely.
“This is an emergency,” Maker, the bill’s sponsor, said. If Maine doesn’t do something now, “that’s one more child who’s being abused as we speak.”
There are a number of age-appropriate ways to talk to children about abuse. Educators with MECASA, for example, educate students about personal body safety, which can include talking about the difference between “good touch,” “hurtful touch” and “confusing touch.” Ultimately, youth should understand the following:
Their body belongs to them.
Touches are supposed to feel good.
Touches in private areas are only to keep them clean and healthy.
Touches are never secrets.
If they feel hurt or scared, they should tell someone they trust.
It’s never too late to tell someone.
They should keep telling until they get the help they need.
It’s difficult to talk about abuse, but perhaps that’s one reason why it’s remained such a problem. One study published in 2003 found that about one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood. We may hear more about the high-profile cases involving offenders who are public figures, but, of course, child abuse happens in every community. It will take a community reaction to reduce the rates of victimization, and talking to children is a good place to start.