Preventing, Recognizing, and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse: An Introductory Guide
Adults can take the lead in helping to protect children from abuse.
Parents and other caretakers should speak with children openly about sexuality, healthy relationships, and abuse. These conversations should start early. Teach children that it is never okay for adults to act in a sexual way with children and that adults never need children to “help” them with any of their body parts. Avoid teaching children that their bodies or genitals are shameful or “dirty.” For more information on talking to children about sexual abuse, please visit Stop It Now’s tip sheet on this topic.
Listen to children and respect their boundaries. If a child does not want to hug or kiss a friend or relative, honor that boundary rather than requiring physical affection. Whenever possible, ask for a child’s permission before touching them. (In cases where this is not feasible, an alternative is to explain how you will touch the child and why you are doing it, such as for a medical examination or to bathe the child.) If a child seems uncomfortable with a particular adult, find a time afterwards to ask them about their discomfort and talk about what is happening.
Caregivers should monitor children’s use of the Internet, social media, and smartphones. While it is possible for parents to monitor activity without a child’s consent or knowledge, it is often more productive for parents to take the opportunity to start a conversation with their children about their use of technology. Maintaining open communication and emphasizing safety should be high priorities, and parents should avoid taking a punishment-oriented approach to technology use, as this may encourage children to become more secretive about their activities. For more information about safe use of technology, visit the Parents’ Guide to Internet Safety created by the FBI.
Youth-serving organizations can also minimize the risk of child sexual abuse by adopting appropriate prevention policies. Parents, caregivers, and concerned community members can ask questions about these measures and advocate for their adoption at local daycares, nursery schools, sports leagues, youth groups, and other youth-serving programs and organizations in the community.
Child safety begins with safe hiring policy. When hiring staff and volunteers, organizations should ask screening questions, conduct reference and background checks, and check the sex offender registries. Parents should avoid placing their children in programs that do not make use of all of these approaches. Specific questions about an applicant’s interactions with youth are an important front-line defense against child sexual abuse.
All staff and volunteers should be trained to recognize and respond to suspected or disclosed child sexual abuse. This training should include requirements for reporting. All staff and volunteers should immediately report suspected child abuse to authorities themselves. It is not enough for staff to report to a supervisor.
One-on-one interactions—especially in isolated locations—should be avoided. Choose group activities whenever possible. Consider whether it is ever appropriate for one staff member or volunteer to be alone with one child. If one-on-one time is necessary or unavoidable, these interactions should take place in open, observable areas, or be subject to routine, random observation (such as check-ins with another staff member.)
Organizations should also be aware of older children’s access to younger children. For example, programs that pair younger students with older student “buddies” should also seek to eliminate or monitor one-on-one time between older and younger children.
Recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
Age-inappropriate sexual behavior, knowledge, or vocabulary can be a red flag of sexual abuse. It is important for parents, caregivers, and teachers to understand normal child development, including development of sexual behaviors and knowledge. More information regarding age-appropriate sexual behaviors of children is available here.
There are a variety of behavioral signs that may indicate child sexual abuse. Dramatic changes in behavior, reverting to behaviors common in younger children, or acting out sexually can be major red flags. Children may suffer from anxiety, changes in eating and sleeping habits, or nightmares. A more extensive list of potential warning signs is available here.
Physical signs of child sexual abuse are less common, but should always be taken seriously. If a child exhibits any physical signs of abuse, it is very important that the child receive an appropriate medical examination. (For a list of common physical symptoms, please visit this link.) Forensic examinations should be conducted by a forensic nurse examiner or other practitioner who is specially trained in administration of pediatric forensic examinations. Acute examinations are conducted when the assault or abuse occurred within 120 hours and are performed at SAFE Program hospitals. Chronic examinations, which are the most common examinations in child sexual abuse cases, are scheduled in advance as part of the investigation process once a case has been reported to Child Protective Services and/or local law enforcement. For more information about forensic examinations, please contact your local Child Advocacy Center.
Know that not all children response to abuse in the same way. Children process trauma differently, and every child victim will have a different response to the abuse. A particular child’s trauma responses may be different from what some people might expect, but this should not be taken to mean that the child is making it up or that the child is “just exaggerating.” All disclosures of abuse should be taken seriously.
If a child discloses sexual abuse to you, believe the child and report the abuse.
Understand why children may be afraid to tell, wait a long time before telling, or keep the abuse a secret. Because 90% of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone that the child or family knows, perpetrators often build up a relationship with the child before attempting to abuse them. This process, called “grooming,” often includes cultivating the trust of the child and other family members by spending time together, giving gifts, or otherwise filling a need in the child’s life. Perpetrators then exploit the child’s trust to ensure that the abuse remains a secret. They may say that the abuse is a special secret, shame the child for letting it happen, or threaten to harm the child or their family if they tell anyone.
Listen attentively to the child and give them your full attention, but do not probe for additional information beyond what they want to share. Do not attempt to interview the child yourself or engage in “fact-finding,” as this can compromise vital evidence and compound the trauma experienced by the child. The best way to ensure that the investigation is performed by trained professionals is to report the abuse to local law enforcement, Child Protective Services, or both. Consider the child’s safety and privacy when making your next steps.
Remember: virtually without exception, everyone in Maryland is obligated to report child sexual abuse. It is critical that any disclosure of abuse be reported immediately. Some categories of professionals may have additional considerations regarding reporting. Clinicians, educators, and other affected professionals can find more information in MCASA’s online training, Preventing, Identifying, and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse in Maryland.
Remain calm. Children often begin by disclosing abuse indirectly in order to determine how adults will react to the information. They may not share everything that occurred, or they may say that the abuse happened to someone else. It is important to remain calm, listen without judgement, and avoid reacting in a way that might indicate to the child that you are upset. If children feel that you are upset or angry, they may shut down and stop communicating about the abuse.
Learn more about preventing, recognizing, and responding to child sexual abuse.
Additional MCASA resources, including fact sheets, reporting requirements, and legal resources are available here.
MCASA’s Online Training for professionals: Preventing, Identifying, and Responding to Child Sexual Abuse in Maryland