CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE: SECRETS

Is it possible that this framework of isolated family units creates the environment where child sexual assault is more 1ikely to occur?

The perpetrator is far less likely to be some psychotic stranger than someone in their own family or a person well known to them. Perpetrators of child abuse look just like any other men and women. They may be fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, babysitters, mothers, uncles, nextdoor neighbors or family friends. They may use bribes, threats or physical force to involve the child in sexual activity and keep it a secret. But no matter how well kept the secret is, like any crime there are clues for those who are prepared to look.

As a community, the first step in protecting children from sexual abuse is to acknowledge that it happens. Sexual abuse is not a phenomenon of the nineties, or the eighties, or even lust of this century. What is relatively new is our awareness of it. But it takes more than just knowing about it. We have to believe that it happens and, most importantly, believe the child who reports or even hints at abuse. When you are dealing with children you realize that they do not always use the same words to describe their bodies or their feelings as an adult would. A child may say something like, ‘When Gary gives me a bath he hurts my bottom’ or ‘I don’t want Joe to come over anymore.’ You may not get very many chances to pick up on these clues because the fear of what might happen if they ‘tell’ means that it takes all the courage they can muster to try to let you know. This fear of what might happen will frequently hold back disclosure of sexual abuse for many years. Even when a child does reveal sexual abuse, they may be so terrified of the repercussions, like parents’ anger or distress, rejection by other family members and the threat of their family disintegrating, that they retract the story.

The clues may be even more subtle than this, particularly if the child is frightened of direct threats of what will happen if they ‘tell’. This fear will not necessarily be in anything the child says. Happy, secure children never consider, and certainly do not attempt, suicide, so any child who talks about killing themselves must be taken seriously. The alarm bells should immediately ring that abuse is a possibility.

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