Prevention begins with a willingness to talk
The danger you don’t see
Every parent tells their children not to talk to strangers or take candy from them.
But that ominous figure of fear really isn’t who we should be scared of — the real danger lurks much closer to home.
This horrifying notion was one of many unsettling facts I discovered while taking SCARS’ Darkness to Light Stewards of Children training on Saturday morning.
I was shocked when Jon Brunson, the chairman of the charity’s board of directors, explained that only about 10 percent of child sexual abuse victims are abused by strangers.
“We’ll teach you how to recognise, prevent and react responsibly to this crime,” he said.
I was one of about 25 people attending Saturday’s session, alongside teachers, sports organisations, concerned parents, and even the Deputy Governor, Ginny Ferson.
Mr Brunson laid bare the hard and uncomfortable facts about child abuse for his shocked but captivated audience, and said Darkness to Light’s Five Steps to Protecting our Children would give us the tools to help protect children.
The steps are learning the facts about sexual abuse, minimising the opportunity for abuse, talking about it, recognising the signs, and reacting responsibly.
The training offered a mix of survivors’ stories, expert advice and guidance to help the community prevent sexual abuse.
The victims’ harrowing confessions included being abused by a parent, an older cousin, a sports coach. One woman was the victim of a trafficker, another molested by his babysitter.
Abusers are not solely some stranger in a dirty raincoat hanging around the park. They are all ages, races and genders.
The stories also highlighted that people can be afraid to speak up — a mum ignored her husband raping their daughter for years — or that they suspect sexual abuse but do not report their concerns.
An interactive workbook helped us to think about sexual abuse on a personal level — which children are in our care? When are they likely to be alone with adults or older youths? What can I do to protect my loved ones?
Mr Brunson and the brave survivors said the effects of sexual abuse “last into adulthood”.
“There’s diminished self-esteem, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, psychological problems, thoughts of suicide,” he said.
It really hammered home the notion that abuse affects the whole community, not just individual families.
After the class, the group praised the training and felt confident it would help them going forward.
Ms Ferson said she found the course “very worthwhile and I would certainly recommend it to others”.
“One of the most important messages I took away is that child safeguarding is a community responsibility,” she said.
“The more people who are informed and alert to the causes and signs of child abuse the better society is equipped to keep its children from harm.
“I strongly encourage parents, care-givers, youth workers, anyone who comes into contact with and cares for children to inform themselves about the issues.”
After the three-hour session, I felt drained. It was an extremely uncomfortable and upsetting subject matter — and I was horrified that relatives or close friends could be harming children. Of course, we cannot assume everyone is a predator, but pretending this doesn’t happen will not help a child.
Sometimes we have to take risks and face the evil in the world if we ever hope to conquer it.
More than 1,800 people have taken training classes that focus on protecting children from sexual abuse.
The free course is run by SCARS (Saving Children and Revealing Secrets), a charity that aims to reduce the risk of youngsters being molested and tries to be a voice for victims and their families.
“People don’t want to think about sexual abuse or think it can’t happen to their child but we can’t stop something we don’t talk about,” said SCARS founder Debi Ray-Rivers. “Doing nothing is a choice.”
Mrs Ray-Rivers, a survivor of sexual abuse, is extremely passionate about protecting children.
Also the executive director of the charity, which launched in 2011, she said SCARS’ mission was to shed light on this “dark subject through awareness, one adult at a time”.
“Prevention is key and SCARS champions the message of prevention in the community,” she added.
“We are the voice for sexually abused children.
“Keeping children safe is an adult’s responsibility and adults need to understand that perpetrators groom victims and look for vulnerable children. If they think a child will tell, they won’t touch them.”
SCARS is determined to end the silence, secrets and shame that surround sexual abuse.
“Parents need to know how to have conversations with children about their bodies and boundaries,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said.
“Tell children that no one has the right to touch or view their private parts, or be asked to touch or view others. And have conversations with siblings about appropriate viewing and touching.
“Children need to know they can tell a trusted adult if it happens.”
Mrs Ray-Rivers said most abusers were someone the child knew, and that only about 10 percent of predators were strangers.
“It’s usually someone they know, love and trust,” she added. “Between 30 and 40 percent are family members. An abuser knows that once they have a child’s trust, a child can be manipulated into abuse and silence.”
Research in the US has found that about 88 percent of abuse is never reported. But SCARS hopes its efforts will contribute to more victims coming forward in Bermuda.
“We live in a small community and people don’t want their personal business exposed,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said. “But families and adults need to recognise that the shame rests with the perpetrator, not the victim or their family.”
Among SCARS’ resources is the award-winning Darkness to Light Stewards of Children training programme. The charity started running free classes in May 2012 and since then 1,800 people have taken the course — with another batch attending last Saturday.
Teachers have taken part, as have police officers, charities, church groups, sports organisations, support agencies, Government staff and prosecutors.
The US prevention programme teaches adults how to prevent, recognise and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
“Parents and members of the community who are concerned about youngsters’ safety would richly benefit from this thought-provoking course,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said.
“SCARS can’t force organisations to do the training, but we’d like it to be a mandatory programme for an organisation working with children.”
SCARS other resources include the SAFE — SCARS Arms Families through Education — programme, which offers information such as sex-abuse statistics, warning signs, information about protecting children on the internet, and questions to ask when enrolling a child in a camp or programme.
“These include asking if the organisation has a policy on staff’s one-on-one interaction with children,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said.
SCARS also has a library of books that can be loaned free of charge for parents to read with their children, while their website has information about awareness, prevention and healing.
There are also details of who to contact should you discover or suspect abuse — the police and Child and Family Services should be notified immediately.
SCARS is full of praise for their staff and the team at the Department of Public Prosecutions, and emphasises that victims should not be afraid to come forward.
The charity supports the creation of a public sex offender’s register, so that members of the community will know if a child abuser is living among them.
“If your organisation is entrusted with the care of children, SCARS strongly recommends that you find out if a volunteer or potential employee has a conviction for a sex offence by contacting the police,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said.
The charity also advocates more help for offenders while they are in prison.
“Psychologists specifically trained in working with sex offenders should be sent into prisons before offenders are released,” Mrs Ray-Rivers said. “Offenders are manipulative by nature and can possibly manipulate the system.”
SCARS would like the courts to allow victims to give evidence via video-link or from behind a screen rather than in open court facing their alleged attacker.
“SCARS’ long-term goal is a child advocacy centre but it will take a lot of money,” Ms Ray-Rivers said. “This could provide a nurturing, safe environment for victims and families.”
Mrs Ray-Rivers is hopeful the charity can now reach even more people in the community.
“Victims need to know that what’s happened to them was not their fault, they did nothing wrong,” she said. “Tell children you are proud of them for telling, reinforce that they did not cause this. Start early and talk often about body safety to children.”
Bermuda Police Inspector Mark Clarke encouraged victims and their families to come forward.
“Sexual assaults are traumatic experiences that affect all genres within the community,” he said. “Historically, two-thirds of all sexual assaults involve victims under the age of 16. Bermuda as a jurisdiction experiences a similar ratio.
“Treating victims with dignity, without prejudice, fear of ridicule, and increased public awareness via education has assisted with the ease of reporting.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Child and Family Services said it was seeing more young people coming forward to report being molested.
“Some of this speaking up can be credited to SCARS because of their educational outreach and training,” she said.
The department, whose staff have had SCARS training, said there were 136 reported cases of sexual abuse in 2011, 106 in 2012 and 126 last year, and that it liaised with the police to conduct joint forensic interviews, support the family and refer the child for trauma counselling.
“We liaise with any services that are required to support the families, such as financial, medical or the Witness Care Unit,” the spokeswoman said.
“The social worker will attend court to ensure that the child is supported when they testify.
“The department also supports parents and children should the children experience behavioural challenges as a result of the trauma of the victimisation.
“It is important for every organisation to have a sexual/child abuse component included in their employee orientation manual.
“This is a training the we encourage.”
The department said compulsory background checks were necessary for those who work with children, but that a public sex offender register was “a complex issue for Bermuda for a number of reasons”.
“In some instances members of the public have demonstrated that they are not supportive of the victims,” the spokeswoman said.
“Often the information that is disclosed would identify the victim and we have seen children ostracised and harassed by members of the community in various forms, such as through cyber bullying and Facebook.”
SCARS’ training programmes and resources are free to the public thanks to generous sponsorship from corporate donors including Argus, Bank of Bermuda Foundation, Catlin, Hiscox, RenRe, Oil Insurance and Oil Casualty Insurance, Arch Re and kind-hearted community donors.