Shame and fear are enemies of truth. Ignorance of what’s evil and what can be done about it, will stop truth in its tracks. Powerlessness will bury it in a shallow grave. These feelings are all common to childhood. Child sex abuse is often- probably most often- birthed in the shadows of ignorance; the innocent and natural ignorance of small children. And it’s trapped in those shadows by fear and shame. Usually forever.
We hear about so little of it. We- those of us responsible for interrupting it, for protecting its victims, for apprehending its perpetrators, for plying justice from juries- we don’t scratch the surface of what’s dished out and how often. Conservative statistics put the numbers at around one in three girls and one in five boys. And boys under-report. Offenders, of course, are sublimely clever and ruthless about keeping children quiet. They convince their victims, by viciously creative means, that the abuse must remain a secret between just them.
“It’s because you’re special,” he tells her. “It’s because I see you like a grown-up, and you’re the only one who really understands me.”
“It has to stay a secret,” he tells him. “If you tell, your mother will hate you. She’ll hate me. And the other boys will just call you queer. And no one will believe you anyway. Even if they did believe you, they’ll just put me in jail and split the whole family up. Do you want that?”
Shockingly sad is the fact that most of these things- the warnings given to children as to what will happen if they do come forward, are often valid. In fact, reporting sexual abuse does sometimes break up families. It does sometimes cause the victims to be isolated, resented, ridiculed. It does sometimes land them in foster care. And so on.
But sadder still is the situation where a child could disclose and would be supported and handled appropriately, but doesn’t. Because she’s ashamed. Because she’s afraid. Because the suffering has become a part of her reality. Because human beings can get used to almost anything. And so she grows with the abuse in silence until it stops. Often, she lurches forward into adulthood dealing with these wounds in whatever panoply of ways inference, circumstance and maturity have given her. Usually she’ll do remarkably well. But the thing in the attic never goes away. And her compromised life, fulfilling though it might be, is often less than would it could have been. It is less than she deserves.
Unless, of course, the silence becomes deafening, somewhere in adolescence. And things don’t go so well.
Giving children the tools to report and end abuse before lasting harm is done, or at least truncating the harm and exposing an offender before he moves on to the next child, is one of our greatest challenges. Creating an atmosphere of comfort, trust, and understanding is the best thing we can do as parents. But it’s more than just assuring our children- particularly small children- that we will believe them, support them, and help them if they tell us about someone touching them inappropriately. It’s also giving them the words, age-appropriate words, taught with tact, grace and love, so they can tell us when something happens that we need to know about. A child’s instincts about ‘bad touches’ develop very early, and despite the claims of some groups that children are dangerous story tellers whose claims of sex abuse are almost always coached or simply spun from thin air, their instincts are usually correct. Very young (3 to 5 year old) children can be susceptible to continued, high pressure tactics and can create events in their minds that didn’t actually happen. But even they usually resist implanted ‘memories.’ Most of the time, if a child is feeling that a touch from an adult is wrong, she is correct and she should tell someone. The question is how.
Jill Starishevsky has an answer. Jill had the office next door to mine on the 5th floor of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office when I arrived there in 2005. She has prosecuted cases in the Child Abuse and Sex Unit for over 10 years. There isn’t much she hasn’t seen with regard to the horrors that can be visited on children, but to know Jill is to know a woman who, if the business is getting to her (as it does in one way or another to all of us) you’d never know it. She has a quick and lovely smile, an infectious laugh and a loving, open-hearted manner with kids and their families that makes her a welcome sight when they become a part of the system.
Her book, My Body Belongs to Me is a simple and ingenious guide, written to and for kids, that teaches them how to recognize and own what’s not right. And then how to tell someone who can make a difference. The book has been out for a while to great success, and it’s well deserved. Jill took what she’s learned as a mother and an ADA, and created a tool that be of very good use in stopping something terrible before it flowers into something much worse. Better still, her book in its rhythmic simplicity and poetic, childlike language, is not the type of tool that can challenged as something that darkens childrens’ lives with adult themes, or puts runaway thoughts into their heads.
There is no sure fire, fool-proof way to protect your children from child sex abuse. There are simply too many variables, too many opportunities, too little control. And frankly the kind of control a parent would need to completely cordon off a child from his or her world would be smothering and counter-productive anyway. So we watch, and try to see every angle, and we hope.
A friend of mine with a beautiful and lively six year-old boy sends him to an exclusive private school in a major city. She told me about a young man in his 20’s who works at the school, although not as a teacher, and informally mentors some of the children, including her son. Usually the activities with him are supervised, but not always. She likes him, and she’s spoken with him. Face to face. Looking carefully in his eyes. She wants to trust her instincts, and her instincts tell her that he’s okay. And she’s not the only mother whose kids spend time with him. They’re all on board and really like him. Plus, there are usually other adults around. What did I think?
I could only shrug. Chances are, he’s harmless. And probably a genuinely good guy who loves kids and will enrich their lives a little bit. But if he is s predator, and a good one, no one-on-one talk is going to reveal a damn thing. Best to be conservative. And in addition, it’s best if her son has the words, the reinforcement, and the knowledge to speak up if anything happens that shouldn’t. God gave the child the instinct. Jill has given us the means to make a further difference.