Protecting children from the horrors of abuse
By Greg Bach
A horrifying story emerged in South Philadelphia last month, where a volunteer youth soccer coach was jailed on charges he paid a now-15-year-old girl to have sex and fathered a child with her.
The 39-year-old faces a lengthy list of charges, including statutory sexual assault, indecent sexual assault and corruption of a minor.
Meanwhile, in Oregon a youth coach was charged with more than two dozen sex crimes involving seven boys; in North Carolina an eighth victim stepped forward in a case in which a 50-year-old former AAU basketball coach is facing more than 150 child sex charges and is in jail with a $21 million bond; and in Maryland a youth soccer coach is accused of sexually abusing a 7-year-old on the field while her teammates ran laps.
These stories have become disgustingly common.
Jill Starishevsky is all too familiar with them, too. She’s a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City, as well as the author of My Body Belongs to Me, a children’s book aimed at preventing abuse by teaching children that their bodies are their own.
She shares these tips to help keep kids safe from predators:
SAFETY IN NUMBERS: Find out what the policy is for one-on-one contact. Organizations can limit or eliminate the opportunity for abuse if there is a policy requiring a third person to be present (whether it is an adult or another child). In a sport such as tennis where there may not be a third person, parents should consider being present for the lessons.
SAFE TOUCHING VS. UNSAFE TOUCHING: Have a discussion with your child about what types of touching are appropriate in that particular sport. With a contact sport such as football or wrestling, be explicit about what behavior is acceptable and what is not. Teach your child to come to you and ask questions if they are uncertain. Discuss whether there are other touches that you have not addressed.
USE A BROAD BRUSH: While parents may have concerns about protecting their child from a coach, they should keep in mind that other children can be perpetrators of sexual abuse against a child as well. All lessons should apply to anyone who might touch the child inappropriately, whether adult or child.
NO SECRETS. PERIOD: Encourage your children to tell you about things that happened to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way to effectuate this rule is as follows: If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to your child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret,” firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then turn to your child and say “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.” Secrecy is the most powerful weapon in a child abuser’s arsenal.
IDENTIFY A “SAFETY ZONE” PERSON: Teach your children that they can come to you to discuss anything, even if they think they will get in trouble. Convey to them that you will listen with an open mind even if they were doing something they should not have been doing. A safety zone person can be a neighbor, family member, religious officials or anyone who your child feels comfortable confiding in should something happen to them and they are reluctant to discuss it with parents. The safety zone person should be advised that they have been chosen and should be instructed to discuss the situation with the parents in a timely manner. Keep in mind that child predators often “entice” their prey with something inappropriate, such as allowing a child to watch an adult movie or miss school, letting them smoke a cigarette or drink alcohol. Children will often be reluctant to tell about inappropriate touching for fear they will get in trouble for the drinking or missing school. Explain to children that if someone touches them inappropriately, they should tell the parent or the safety zone person, even if they did something that they were not allowed to do.
TEACH YOUR CHILD THE CORRECT TERMS FOR THEIR BODY PARTS: This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable. Teaching children only the nicknames for their private parts can delay a disclosure. An 11-year-old who only knows the term ‘hoo hoo’ for her vagina may be embarrassed to tell someone if she is touched there.
PRACTICE ‘WHAT IF’ SCENARIOS: Say to your child, “What would you do if someone offered you a treat, or a gift when I wasn’t there?” Help your child arrive at the right answer, which is to say no, and ask you first. Many parents also encourage children to walk or run away in this situation if the person is a stranger. Parents should note that giving a child a gift and asking them to keep it a secret is a very common step in the process of grooming a child for sexual abuse.
TEACH CHILDREN TO RESPECT THE PRIVACY OF OTHERS: Children should learn to knock on doors that are shut before opening them and close the door to the bathroom when they are using it. If they learn to respect the privacy of others, they may be more likely to recognize that an invasion of their privacy could be a red flag meaning danger.
LET CHILDREN DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES HOW THEY WANT TO EXPRESS AFFECTION: Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you by doing this, you will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
TEACH CHILDREN THAT ‘NO’ MEANS ‘NO.’ Teach children that it is OK to say ‘NO’ to an adult. Without permission from you, many children may be reluctant to do so even if the adult is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Teach children that all of these lessons apply to children as well. If another child is touching your child in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable, teach your child to say ‘No,’ get away and tell someone. When someone tickles a child, if the child says ‘no’ all tickling should cease. Children need to know that their words have power and ‘No’ means No.
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