April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month

Sexual abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, is a plague upon our society that cuts across socio-economic lines, sexual identity, race and age. Its impacts are felt by individuals and families for generations.

When we hear stories about serial pedophiles like Michigan State coach Larry Nasser we wonder, “how did he get away with it for so long?”

One reason child sexual abusers get away with their crimes is because the abuse often goes unreported. The reasons for this vary and can include threatening victims and shaming them.

Victims may feel, too, that they won’t be believed if they say something.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that sexual abusers look just like anybody else: they’re a neighbor, maybe a close relative. They’re preachers and daycare workers – in short you can expect to find them wherever there are lots of kids, which is why educators like teachers, coaches and bus drivers are high on the list of abusers.

Attorney Robert Allard has spent the last 20 years finding justice for survivors of child sexual abuse and says abusers are “cunning and crafty” when they begin grooming children to accept their criminal advances.

These warning signs, which are known as “red flags,” include isolating children, spending time with children outside of sanctioned events, and keeping children after school or after a sporting event has ended.

“Molesters just don’t instantaneously molest, there’s a process,” Mr. Allard said. “And what that process involves is the pedophile trying to gain the trust of not only the child but the child’s parents. So, it may start with a hand on the shoulder, it’ll migrate to a side hug, to a frontal hug and then more sinister touching.”

It also involves warning signs like reward systems. For instance, a coach or teacher might say, ‘I’m going to play you more if you do what I want’ or ‘I’m going to give you A’s in school if you stay after and clean my blackboards.’ Offering candy and gifts is also a red flag, Mr. Allard said.

Former Santa Clara County, California prosecutor Ray Mendoza, who prosecuted 40 child sexual abusers during his career, says it’s much easier for abusers to groom children if they’re already a trusted authority figure.

“In the school setting, what’s very typical is that teachers start off automatically with a high level of trust,” Mendoza said. “People assume that the school districts and school officials have vetted these people but what we find in many of these cases is that although there is vetting, most sexual predators have no prior record. Which means you can vet all you want but the reality is there’s nothing there in their history when you go look at a rap sheet.”

So, parents need to closely monitor the goings-on at school, including personally checking out a younger child’s classroom.

“A pedophile teacher will literally cover the windows with children’s art, perhaps math, perhaps they have a school newspaper and they utilize that newspaper to cover the windows,” said retired San Jose police sexual abuse investigator Mike Leininger. “Depending on the configuration of the school and the classroom – for example portables have only one way in and one way out, and those windows are almost always tinted and sometimes they have blinds, so there is literally no way for anyone to see into that room.”

If a parent observes a classroom with covered windows, the parent should ask why they’re covered and then ask for the coverings to be removed.

“I recommend you do that both verbally and via email to document it,” Leininger said.

Children who are being sexually abused will often display unusual behaviors. For example, is he or she having nightmares? Seem distracted? Experiencing a loss of appetite, mood swings? Bad grades?

Sometimes children will write or draw sexual or frightening images. Older kids may suddenly have money they shouldn’t, while younger kids may receive toys and exhibit inappropriate sexual knowledge and behaviors.

Any of these things should make you suspicious that something bad may be happening to your child.

If you ask your child if they’re being abused or if they come forward on their own, parents need to reassure them that they’re believed and they’ll be OK. Don’t say things like “are you sure?” Instead, thank them for their bravery and reassure them they did nothing wrong.

Then, consider calling the police.

“Sexual predators won’t stop until they’re caught,” Mr. Allard said. “And even when they’re caught institutions like schools and churches sometimes coverup for them, so parents need to be prepared for that. It’s also why I’ve dedicated my career to holding institutions accountable.”

In the end, covering up sexual abuse tarnishes an institution’s reputation and can cause lifelong harm to individuals who are trying to recover from abuse.

“When a child is sexually abused by a person who’s in a position of trust and authority, someone that they felt protected by, they lose their ability to trust their entire lives and all the relationships that we form throughout our lives are based on trust,” said Cerri, Boskovich & Allard attorney Lauren Cerri. “Sexual abuse affects a child at every stage of their development, whether it’s their first date, going to the prom, deciding whether or not to get married or to have children of their own.”

Ms. Cerri went on to say that sexual abuse survivors who have children are often over-protective parents.

“When it’s time to bring their little boy or little girl to school, they’ll wonder if they can trust the school or organization to keep their child safe. They’ll want assurance that what happened to them will never happen to their little girl or little boy,” Ms. Cerri said.

So, bringing awareness to the issue of sexual abuse, its impacts and how to spot it are the reasons why April is observed as Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Sexual abuse survivor Jancy Thompson has joined the growing chorus of people who are demanding that schools, churches, law enforcement and other institutions take responsibility for protecting children in their care.

“The number one most important thing to remember is it’s important to offer sexual abuse survivors hope,” Ms. Thompson said. “Hope that they, too, can share their story, hope that they, too, can regain their voice and their power back and hope that they, too, can turn their life around and make lemonade out of lemon juice.”

Ms. Thompson was a 15-year-old aspiring Olympian when her swim coach began abusing her in 1997.

She struggled for years with her abuse but counseling and support from caring adults have transformed her life: today she is an active and happily married mother of two.

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