Summer is drawing to a close, the days are growing shorter again, and school is starting. Whether your child loves school or dreads it, it is important that parents and caregivers share personal safety tips with their children before they start the new year. It can be a difficult subject to think about, and even harder to talk about with your child, but statistics show that sexual abuse is unfortunately all too common: one in four girls and one in six boys will experience sexual abuse before they reach age 18.
Your child’s safety is not guaranteed at school. Strangers are not more likely to commit child abuse; in fact, over 90% of sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows—such as a teacher, coach, family friend, or family member. Teach your child that the authority of adults has limits and nobody is every allowed to see or touch their private parts, except for certain trusted people in cases of hygiene and safety such as doctors.
Educate your child about personal
safety and let your child know that they can ask you about any concerns or
questions that may come up. Research shows that an educated child is more
likely to deter an offender because an educated child is more likely to break
Start by teaching your child the
proper names for their private body parts, which will help them communicate
with you. Talking with children calmly and matter-of-factly about body parts
demonstrates that you feel comfortable talking about these parts and they are
not “bad” or “gross.”
Model characteristics of healthy relationships and boundaries in your own life. When children know what is expected in a normal relationship, they can recognize when their school relationships, whether with a teacher or classmate, become inappropriate. Abuse is never the child’s fault. Help your child understand that they will not get in trouble if they tell you about a touching secret and that it is never too late to tell.
Elisheva Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.
After experiencing abuse, witnessing a homicide, or undergoing other trauma, it is crucial that a child receives empathetic care and is allowed to tell his or her story in a comfortable, child-friendly, pressure-free setting. At Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC), the child development specialists, pediatricians, forensic interviewers, and all of the other professionals are specifically trained to work with children who have experienced trauma and make their experience as easy as possible. The following is a true-to-life fictionalized account of what a child might experience in the course of a day at BCAC.
Our car pulls up to a big red and gray building. We
walk up some stairs, get buzzed in, and go up to the security guy’s desk. The
security guy asks us if we are going to BCAC and Grandma says yes, so he calls
someone on the phone to come down and get us.
A lady with a big smile on her
face comes out of the elevator. “Hello! I’m Ms. Vera. What’s your name? How are
you doing? Do you know who you are visiting with today?”
I don’t know what to answer. I
feel shy. Grandma tells her our names as we go up to the fourth floor.
The sounds of children playing
float towards us as we leave the elevator. “Now, you get to go to the playroom right
there. There are all sorts of toys and games and projects to do.” Butterflies
hang from the ceiling on strings. Some kids are pretending to sell ice cream
and cookies and others are crafting at a table. A baby crawls around with
little baby toys.
We walk into the playroom and Grandma sits down. I sit
next to her in a green chair and wonder what I’m supposed to do right now. A
woman comes up to us and sits in the chair beside me.
“Hi, I’m Ms. Amanda,” she says. “What is your name?”
I tell Ms. Amanda my name and she starts talking about
the play area. “We have many different toys and games that you can play with
while you are in the playroom. We also have paint and other arts and crafts
stuff for you to do, if you want. What would you like to play?”
“I guess I like painting.”
“If you want, you can paint with me at this table,”
says Ms. Amanda.
I ask if she has any blue paint because it is my
favorite and she says, “Yes!”
Right before we sit down at the table, I hear Ms.
Amanda ask my Grandma if I can have a snack while we paint. Grandma says it’s
fine and I’m so glad because I was too nervous to eat breakfast today and I’m
We start painting and swirling the blue paint around
to make a sky makes me feel better, like I’m looking at the real sky.
Another woman named Ms. Denny walks into the playroom
and says hi to grandma. She looks over at me painting with Ms. Amanda and says
hi to me, too. She asks about my painting and I show her the blue swirly sky
and also some purple dots I added to make a field of wildflowers. Ms. Denny
then starts talking to Grandma.
While we are painting, I notice a picture of a dog in
“Hey! You guys have a dog?”
“Yes, his name is Manny!”
“Dogs are, like, my favorite people in the world,” I
say. “Can I play with him?”
Ms. Amanda says that I have to ask Grandma first to
make sure it’s okay. After Grandma tells her that it’s okay and I’m not
allergic to dogs, Ms. Amanda then asks all the other kids and grown-ups in the
room if it’s okay if Manny comes to play in the playroom. After they all say
yes, Ms. Amanda goes to get Manny.
While I wait, I go over to Ms. Kelly, who also plays
with people in the playroom, and we eat the (not real!) ice cream that the other
kids made for us.
Ms. Amanda comes back with Manny on a leash. I spend a
lot of time with Manny. He’s big and huggable and I love petting and brushing his
black fur since it makes me feel so calm. He can do the best tricks! He can
even play games like Honey Bee Tree and pull out the leaves without the bees
falling down. I’m really good at that game so he totally loses but that’s okay.
Other kids hang around with us and I’m having a lot of fun.
Then another person comes
over to talk with Grandma. “Hi, I’m Sammy Jo,” she says. “Your grandmother and
I are going to go talk to some people downstairs, and soon we’ll come back and
get you, and have a chance to talk more.”
When they come back, they come get
me and we leave the playroom. We take Manny with us to the back, where there
are many more rooms. Other people are waiting for us, including the cop I met
yesterday. “Hey, again,” he says.
“Remember I said we were going to
talk again today?” Sammy Jo says. “So I have a room for us to talk in.” Me and
Sammy Jo and Manny go into a room with huge magenta rectangles and sort of
gray-blue rectangles. I notice two cameras—they’re hard to miss.
“Why are there cameras in this
room?” I ask.
“The camera records us while we
talk so that I don’t forget anything you say. Everyone else is in another room,
watching us, to help me do my job, and I wear this earpiece so that they can
ask me questions if they want,” explains Sammy Jo.
We talk about school, my friends,
and things I like to do for fun. Then she asks me questions about what happened
to me and lets me tell the story in the way I want to. Manny is really nice and
lets me hug him when I talk about the scary and bad parts. “Everything you’re telling me is
really important. You’re doing a really good job helping me understand,” says
Afterwards, we go back out to the playroom
and I play Hedbanz with Ms. Kelly and other kids.
“They told me that we’re going to
have a visit with the doctor soon, honey,” says Grandma. We go upstairs in the
elevator and walk through a colorful hallway.
The doctor introduces herself, “Hi,
I’m Dr. Lane.”
I wonder why I need to visit a
doctor. “But I’m not feeling sick.”
“Well, I’m going to look at you
from your nose to your toes and check that everything is healthy. In the last
part of the exam I take a look at your private parts. Do you know who is
allowed to look at your private parts? Someone you trust who is helping you with
a bath, in the bathroom, or a doctor like me.” She also shows me a camera and
says they are going to take pictures to help them.
“Help you do what?” I ask her.
“Normally, nobody should take pictures
of your private areas, but these photos are stored away in a file only for people
who are meant to have access. The pictures help by making things bigger, so if
I have any questions, you don’t have to come back; I can just look at the
Grandma wants to ask a question.
“Is the exam going to be…internal?”
“No,” says Dr. Lane. “I’m just taking
a look at the outside.”
I start feeling very nervous. “Do
I have to? Maybe we can come back another day for this.”
“Manny can stay in the room with
us if you want. You seem a little nervous and Manny is great at helping people
by staying close, right next to you. I know it’s uncomfortable and I’m going to
make this as fast as possible; if anything hurts, I’ll change what I’m doing,”
says Dr. Lane.
When we are finished, I get to pick
out a stuffed animal. Obviously, I pick a dog. We head back downstairs and Ms.
Kelly asks me to name my favorite color because she’ll be giving me a blanket. “Swirls
of blue and green,” I say (that’s the coolest color). I also pick out a book: The
Cat in the Hat since it has the weirdest and funniest pictures.
“But I don’t want to leave!” I say when Ms. Kelly and Ms. Vera and Sammy Jo and Ms. Denny say good-bye. “I didn’t even get to do the craft project.”
“Will you be coming to the support
group on Thursday?” Ms. Denny asks Grandma.
“Maybe we’ll come back on Thursday and you can play here again,” Grandma tells me.
Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.
Each year, BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education team travels around the country training summer camp staff and counselors. By the end of July, we will have trained over 40 camps, meeting with counselors, supervisors, support staff and camp directors.
What frames our conversations with camp staff? We want campers to experience a positive connection with others at camp. We want them to begin to expect consensual and appropriate interactions at all times. We want them to expect that of each other, adults, and themselves. We want them to talk about moments or spaces where they feel uncomfortable, and to get support in getting out of those situations, or in healing from harm that they have experienced. And we want to build resiliency into their brain development by creating positive attachments with adults and peers.
Building a culture of consent protects children. If we teach kids that all interactions should be consensual–from a casual hug, high five, “can I tell you this story,” to sexual interactions and more intimate conversations–then young people will learn expect that. Anyone who has heard a child say “that’s not the way my [parent/caregiver] does [bedtime/my chore routine/my TV allotment]” knows that kids are uncomfortable with the unexpected.
If consent is expected, young people have a barometer to gauge when they feel uncomfortable in non-consensual interactions and what language to use to speak about it. We want this. We want young people to speak up, to try to leave, or to share with an adult if someone has made them feel uncomfortable or has interacted with them in a non-consensual way, regardless of how “serious” that interaction was.
When we teach that all interactions must be consensual, we are taking young people’s feelings seriously. If they don’t want to talk about something, we give them space (or if we have to talk to them about it even if they don’t want to, we ask how we can make that conversation more comfortable). If they want some comfort or attention, we give them that. This builds trust in our relationships with young people, which in turn raises the likelihood that they will share with us if they are feeling uncomfortable in other relationships or spaces.
Beyond that, what we have learned about brain development is that creating positive connections and relationships with young people actually changes the physical structure of a child’s brain. It makes it harder for them to be overwhelmed, and easier for them to calm down once they have been overwhelmed. It reduces long-term effects of trauma or negative experiences. The science and research around how trauma affects human development and how we react to various environments and interactions is constantly changing and improving, and we build our framework for camp training around the latest research.
The Community Outreach and Education team will be back onsite in the fall—stay tuned for our fall schedule of trainings for caregivers, organizations, and youth-serving professionals!
Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.
Managing volunteers and volunteer programs can be challenging. When trying to encourage people to volunteer for your school, sports league, church, synagogue, or non-profit, the last thing you want to do is scare away potential volunteers with piles of paperwork and discussions of child sexual abuse behaviors and outcomes. And when there are already multiple volunteers working with the children in your organization or business, and probably a high turnover rate, it can be daunting to implement a thorough screening and training plan.
There are some basic tips to remember
that will help make the process easier.
Screening Volunteers is Not Optional Youth-serving organizations can be
targeted by individuals who want easy access to children. It is necessary for volunteers
to understand the importance of thoroughly investigating people who will be
working with children and that your organization takes safety very seriously.
Organizations working with troubled
youth may be more at risk for sexual abuse, since troubled youth can be
emotionally insecure, looking for affection, and lacking the support of a
trusted adult. This applies to vulnerable adults as well, such as people with
mental disabilities who may not recognize danger.
Implementing Screening of Volunteers Volunteers may not commit long-term, but it is still important for your business or organization to invest effort into properly screening people who will be interacting with children. Especially for positions involving working one-on-one with youth, such as mentoring or tutoring, it is essential to screen for past crimes, potential issue traits, and suspicious behavior.
Teenage and high school volunteers are
no exception. For teen volunteers, who might not have work references or
available criminal records, you will need to conduct personal interviews,
thorough reference checks, and perhaps require more detailed written
applications. Teen volunteers should be more closely supervised, as well.
Even if the applicant is personally
known to the volunteer coordinator or other people within the organization,
such as a parent of one of the children, the applicant must still undergo a
background check and screening. Unfortunately, 90% of sexual abuse is
perpetrated by someone familiar to the child, meaning that strangers are not
usually the criminals in these cases and abusers are hard to identify.
Sometimes a volunteer has a
personality or temperament less suited to working with children. The position
is just not the right fit, even if it’s not a question of abuse. Here at BCAC,
during the interview process, Nicole Reed, our Volunteer Coordinator, asks how the
applicant found out about our organization. With a former client, or anyone who
is a sexual abuse survivor, she has a conversation about potential triggers and
whether the applicant is ready to return to an advocacy center’s environment. This
informal tool is used to better screen volunteers and make sure that they are
protected and feel safe, as well.
Limitations of Background
Checks It is important to note that
background checks have their limitations. Background checks should not be
skipped, yet many sexual criminals have not been caught or charged and
therefore would have no record. Additionally, criminal records for underage teens
are usually confidential. Don’t think that simply because you have conducted a
background check on someone, you know everything there is to know. A thorough
in-person interview and speaking with references helps to gain a more accurate
impression of someone.
At BCAC, every volunteer must have a
phone conversation and a face-to-face meeting with our Volunteer Coordinator
before starting, in addition to a criminal background check; this allows her to
gain a more thorough understanding of the personality of the prospective
Volunteers The goal of training is to make
volunteers feel comfortable, competent, and capable of doing what they are
supposed to do. While training volunteers to do their job, incorporate training
about preventing sexual abuse. They are part of your team in preventing child
Provide explanations of sexual abuse
and symptoms to watch out for. Volunteers need to feel comfortable asking
questions. Allow time to discuss, or even act out, scenarios as part of the
BCAC, in addition to offering
preventative and informative trainings to other youth-serving organizations,
also trains its own volunteers. Volunteers participate in child development
training, learning about forensic interviews, and shadowing members of different
teams at BCAC, during which they learn through observation and have the
opportunity to ask questions. Importantly, volunteers learn the facts and
statistics of child sexual abuse, what it looks like, and how to report it. They
also learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), how they affect children
long-term, and how the work at child advocacy centers like BCAC helps.
Organizations can’t let the fear of
sexual abuse result in any form of neglect on the part of staff or volunteers.
Children must be cared for with empathy, attention, emotional connection, and
physical touch where appropriate. Create workplace policies and manuals which
include the volunteer functions and child protection policy.
At BCAC, volunteers are always supervised, with either intermittent check-ins
or by keeping volunteers in a shared space. Every volunteer position involves
constant learning on the job, and there is a very open communication system if
any concerns or issues arise.
If it seems like a volunteer isn’t the
right fit for a position, or small problems come up, BCAC has a re-evaluation
process and the volunteer is given an opportunity to undergo training again. Of
course, if a major breach occurs, for instance in a confidentiality matter, the
volunteer is dismissed.
In general, monitoring volunteers means
overseeing their interactions with the children through both the announced and
unannounced presence of a supervisor, always staying on-site with the children,
and scheduled assessments. Behavior to watch out for includes, but is not
limited to, a volunteer trying to spend time alone with the children, showing a
preference for one specific child, or giving presents.
Reporting Structure Our
Volunteer Coordinator Nicole teaches
BCAC’s volunteers how, and to whom, to report red flag behavior. This includes
anything suspicious a child may say to the volunteer.
The volunteers themselves are a part
of your team and are also responsible for the safety of the children. Teach
them to monitor interactions within your organization and how to report
anything suspicious. Define their roles from the start and include it in their
Abuser. Perpetrator. Maltreater. We often think of an adult when we hear these words. When we hear “child sexual abuse” we usually imagine a stranger, a creepy predator, or a pedophile. However, most abuse is perpetrated by average people – adults and children alike. This is an uncomfortable thought; nobody likes to think their children are in danger on a day-to-day basis. But it also means we have to consider how we, or our own children, could be perpetrators, and not the scary stranger that is easier to consider.
While we are slowly getting better at teaching children that they have a right to say no, that their body is private, and they get to be in control of who enters their personal space, we also need to get better at teaching children and young people how to hear no. If the children we know and love could be hurting other children, it is our responsibility as adults to teach them how to treat each other and stand up for each other.
Throughout a young person’s development, we should be building the concept of consent into all of our interactions with them. They should learn to expect that we respect their personal space, and that we have the same expectation of them.
Teach children that everyone has the right to their own body and personal space: we may not touch each other without consent, and we must practice reading each other’s body language to gauge how comfortable our friends are with our behavior. There are developmentally appropriate ways to do this with children of all ages.
For infants, you can begin by narrating how you are interacting with them – “I am washing your body now, so that you will be clean and safe.” Children need to learn that they can expect an explanation (parents, doctors, and caregivers touch your body to keep you safe, healthy, and clean) about why someone may need to touch them.
As soon as young children are in control of their own body movements, we should begin to expect that they listen to other people’s boundaries, just like other people listen to theirs. That means as adults we stop tickling a child when the child says to stop, and it means that we expect our toddlers to not use adults as a jungle gym if the adult says no thanks.
As children get older, it is appropriate to talk more explicitly about consent and bodies. By the time children are in elementary school, consent can be a word they know and use in an everyday manner. By the time they are in middle school, young people should have a sense of the harm that they can do when they ignore their friends’ consent. It is appropriate to talk about hurting each other’s feelings, how they feel when their boundaries or wants are ignored, and how hard it can be to feel comfortable when our friends don’t treat us the way we want to be treated. It is important that we begin to differentiate between “treating people the way you want to be treated” and “treating someone the way they want to be treated.”
By late middle school/early high school, young people should have an explicit sense of sexual assault and the harm that comes when we don’t respect each other’s physical or emotional boundaries.
Of course, each family and caregiver must learn how to incorporate consent language into their own culture. Whether that’s about how we treat each other, how we take care of our siblings, or about how we stay safe, it has to be an authentic and consistent part of a child’s day-to-day learning experience, or they will not be able to internalize these skills.
Building consent into young people’s day-to-day is a protective factor for each young person – the more they know about their rights, the more likely they are to understand when someone (adult or child) is trying to cross their boundaries, and the less likely they are to cross someone else’s boundaries.
Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.
Summer is around the corner and it is a wonderful time for children to play, explore, and just be kids. Children will be visiting extended family, going to their friends’ houses, swimming at the pool, playing at the playground, and doing many other fun and exciting things. With the change in routine and being around more people, it is important to remember some basic tips to keep your children safe.
Talk about Body Safety Teaching children the proper names for their private body parts will help them communicate with you if they should ever have a question related to illness, hygiene or abuse. Talking with children calmly and matter-of-factly about body parts demonstrates that these parts are good and special and that you as the parent feel comfortable talking about these parts. The most natural time to teach children this language is when they are toddlers and are learning the names for the other parts of their bodies.
Teach and Model Healthy Relationships Teach and model characteristics of healthy relationships including empathy, expressed feelings, equality, fairness, respect, and boundaries. When children learn what is healthy, they are more likely to recognize and question unhealthy behaviors. Encourage your child to come to you and other helpful, healthy adults with questions about bodies and touch. Also, review your family’s values and rules for both at home and when you are not around. It is important to know that most abuse is at the hands of someone who has gained the trust of a victim and their family and is someone the child know, loves, or trusts. It is critical that children have a strong understanding of healthy relationships. Also, children must be empowered to listen to their instincts.
Teach Your Child that They are the Boss of their Body Respect your child’s decision to protect their body and space. Their body is theirs, so respect their “no” and teach others that your child is not being rude, but rather establishing their boundaries. An offender won’t typically immediately start touching body parts that a bathing suit covers but instead will slowly try to groom a child and their parents and caregivers through other more “normal” touches. Do not use the term “good touch, bad touch.” We are all sexual beings and sometimes “bad” touches feel good. Instead, teach your kids to be the boss of their body and that they should tell you anytime something feels weird or uncomfortable. Role-play to help kids get comfortable using their words to set boundaries and let them know to set boundaries with other children as well as adults. Help children understand their physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries.
Tell Your Child that Secrets are Not Okay Adults and other children should never ask a child to keep a secret about touch. Tell your children that there are no secrets kept in your family, and no one should ever ask them to keep a secret. Talk about surprises instead – how we surprise people with gifts and presents on their birthday or planning a party. The difference is that surprises are always shared with others and secrets are not. Help your child to understand what they can do if someone asks them to keep a secret.
Watch for “Red Flags” with Other Adults and Children Make sure that all interactions with others are observable, interruptible, and appropriate. Offenders operate by access, privacy, and control. If our child must be alone with an adult for lessons or camp or babysitting, check in occasionally or show up at an unexpected time, just to be sure everything is okay. Trust your instincts and remove your child from a situation if you feel uncomfortable. Listen to your child if they tell you something is wrong and observe their interactions with the person. Be aware of red flags such as an adult treating your child as a peer, using inappropriate language or inappropriate touch, not respecting your child’s privacy, allowing or encouraging illegal activities, treating your child as a favorite, or engaging inappropriately or excessively on social media.
Talk and Talk and Talk Some More Remember abuse is never the child’s fault. Help your child understand that they will not get in trouble if they tell you about a touching secret, and that it is never too late to tell. Empathize with your child that while it is always ok to say “no” to any kind of touch, this can be very hard to do. Create an environment in your home where children feel comfortable sharing information and asking tough questions without being judged. Listen carefully. Nurture an understanding of healthy relationships in your child. Demonstrate the importance of sharing feelings. Evidence suggests that children are more likely to disclose abuse when a parent or loved one initiates a conversation about sexuality or abuse. Learn and exchange current information with your friends and neighbors regarding child sexual abuse so that you will be better able to protect your child. Ongoing communication with our children can help to nurture qualities within them that render them less likely to be targets of abuse. Good communication ensures that when something is difficult or something goes wrong, family and community are there to help.
Finally, it is imperative that all incidents of inappropriate behavior of an adult with a minor be reported to the appropriate person and/or civil authorities. Not all incidents are abuse, but reporting can let the person know that their behavior is unacceptable and that it is being monitored. This gives the person the opportunity to change their behavior. If child abuse is suspected, it must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities immediately as required by Maryland law, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.
We must all work together to protect our children and to help them have happy childhoods and develop into strong and healthy adults.
Alison D’Alessandro is BCAC’s Senior Policy & Program Specialist. Alison has a Master’s degree in Organizational Development and Human Resources from Johns Hopkins University. She educates youth-serving professionals throughout the Baltimore area on creating safe environments and child abuse awareness.
We are less than a month away from the Baltimore Child Abuse Center’s Advocacy Day in Annapolis! On Tuesday, March 12, 9:30am to 1pm, join us for a day of advocacy and speaking with your elected officials about legislative efforts to prevent childhood trauma and abuse in Maryland.
It only takes one responsible adult to end abuse for a child, whether through advocacy, reporting, or prevention. On March 12, we need you to show up for Maryland’s most vulnerable children and be their superheroes—your voice can make a real, tangible difference in the lives of our kids. This is your opportunity to let your legislators know which bills currently under consideration will keep kids in Maryland safe from abuse, and hold adults accountable for preventing and reporting abuse.
We will gather at 9:30am at the Annapolis State House Building, 6 Bladen Street, Room 170 for check-in, a light breakfast, speakers, and to go over logistics for the day. After that, you will meet with your legislative representatives, either individually or you can join a team that already has an appointment.
Never been to an Advocacy Day before? No problem! We will tell you everything you need to know. Meetings will be very short, and we will provide you with materials to share with your representatives and a few talking points.
Please leave plenty of time to park, shuttle and go through security. Parking is available at Navy Stadium (free shuttle), the Gotts Garage/Visitor Center and the Hillman Noah Garage. For more information on parking options, click here.
Here are some of the specific bills we are supporting this legislative session:
SB739/HB1007: This year we are proud to be joining the Maryland Children’s Alliance to take leadership on SB739/HB1007 to help ensure that every child in Maryland has access to a nationally accredited child advocacy center. Following a report of child abuse or neglect, a child should be seen promptly at a nationally accredited CAC, where they can speak with a trained forensic interviewer in a child-friendly setting, thus reducing trauma of multiple interviews by different agencies, and helping to create trustworthy legal evidence if needed.
SB568/HB787: Professionals who work with children have a legal duty to report suspected child abuse. Sadly, not all do. This bill will help hold accountable professionals who know of abuse but choose not to report it.
SB541/HB486: Sex abuse and Misconduct Prevention in Schools. This bill does what criminal background checks alone do not: help alert a school about a potential employee’s past sexual misconduct or sexual abuse of students – incidents that don’t result in convictions but may have resulted in a serious investigation, firing or other disciplinary action.