It’s a topic that has gripped the nation and the local community: child sexual abuse.
With recent accusations and confessions of local coach Louis “Skip” ReVille in the headlines, many parents wonder if this could happen to their child.
According to Darkness to Light, an organization that educates children and adults about sexual abuse, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. And only one in 10 children will tell someone.
And nine out of 10 times, it happens with someone they know, says Troy Strother, executive director of Parents Anonymous of South Carolina, a statewide nonprofit whose mission is to prevent child abuse and neglect by strengthening families and empowering communities.
Most often child predators look like everyone else, and that’s because they want it that way, says Cindy McElhinney, director of programs of Darkness to Light.
“A predator goes undetected because they’re masters of deception and manipulation. They’re creating environments where they’ll be liked, and in many cases, they’re well- respected, high-profile people.”
There are different types of pedophiles, says Jennifer White-Baughan, a Charleston-based clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of trauma in children, adolescents, adults and families.
“One of the hardest things for parents and society at large to deal with is to understand how these perpetrators spend a lifetime learning how to be deceitful,” she says. “They know how to best pull the parents and children in a system where they can have the most access.”
So how can parents stay vigilant? Here are some tools:
Open communication with your child is key.
“Have regular ongoing conversations with your children,” McElhinney says, “not just about body parts and what’s inappropriate, but open it up so they can come to you any time someone has made them feel uncomfortable.”
Once your child opens up about a sexual abuse incident, be supportive and be prepared to have a response ready for them. React calmly and thank your child for telling. Let them know it’s not their fault so you can begin getting them help. Children need to be believed, which is why many don’t tell.
“Often because they’ve been manipulated by a perpetrator, they’ve been told no one is going to believe them. They’ve been told they will get in trouble,” White-Baughan says.
“If you react with anger, as most of us would want to, you may close a teenager down.” she says.
Child sexual abuse can’t be brushed under the rug. With agencies such as the Department of Social Services, the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children’s Center and local law enforcement, there are plenty of options to get the help your child needs.
“Some families feel that it’s more comfortable to forget it and the child will get over it. Children are resilient and many heal, but some don’t, and it is a lifelong issue. Don’t let it go underground. Seek professional help immediately,” White-Baughan says.
These local agencies are prepared to handle these situations and can help parents and children understand what to do next.
Parents often are laden with guilt and need help to understand why it’s not their fault, Strother says.
“Parents believe they’ve done something wrong. We give them the resources they need to help cope with the situation and meet other parents who have been through the same ordeal. Getting a parent into a group where other parents are like them is so important,” he says.
Not related to Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, Parents Anonymous of South Carolina is the oldest sexual abuse prevention program in the state. It allows parents to have weekly meetings with a professional facilitator, a parent leader and other parents in a safe environment where they discuss reasons why their family is struggling.
Meetings are held statewide, and parents are always welcome to attend. Parents Anonymous is a mandatory reporter of suspected abuse or neglect and can help any parent who doesn’t know where to turn.
With full-time jobs, more than one child at home and after-school activities, parents often can get caught up in the everyday hubbub of life. But all parents need to be aware of the red flags of an abuser.
From offering rides home to going the extra mile to help parents, a pedophile is looking for the easiest way to be alone with the child. There are different types of pedophiles, those that prey on opportunity and situations and those that spend their time “grooming” the child they prefer.
“If you feel something as a parent in your gut about a person, trust yourself. If you can see a perpetrator is more interested in being with the children than any other adult, that’s a red flag. Adults challenge pedophiles and make them feel intimated. They seek out children because of the power differential,” White-Baughan says. “Many grooming pedophiles will spend up to a year pulling the kids into a relationship. It’s very seductive. They’re paying a lot of attention to the child. They take them to dinner, pick them up at games and give them special attention that the parents may not be giving.”