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1 in 10 kids is sexually abused — let’s end the silence and stop the abuse


Placing the responsibility of care for your children in the hands of another adult can be challenging for parents. When we send our children to school or other extracurricular activities, we trust that the adults in charge will do everything in their power to ensure our child’s safety and well-being. Through federal, state, local and even organizational policy, we can create safe, nurturing environments where all children can learn, play and grow to their full potential.  

However, absent, incomplete or vague policies and procedures at any of these levels may create opportunities for children to become victims of sexual abuse. If we ensure that our child- and youth-serving organizations and systems are implementing the most rigorous training and policies to minimize opportunities for sexual abuse, we are ensuring the success of the next generation of leaders.

It may come as a surprise how pervasive child sexual abuse is: Research shows an estimated 1 in 10 children under age 18 are affected. Contrary to the warnings many of us received about “stranger danger,” 90 percent or more of incidents occur at the hands of a family member or someone in the child’s or family’s circle of trust. Child sexual abuse can disrupt healthy child development, placing children at risk for serious mental health and social consequences later in life.  

Historically, the problem of child sexual abuse has been approached with a scattershot of programs and policies focused mostly on punishing adult offenders after they are caught and on helping children after they have been traumatized. To prevent child sexual abuse crimes from occurring, adults and communities must take the primary responsibility for protecting children. That means ending the silence of sexual abuse by educating parents and other adults on the behavior signs that abusers use to groom their victims and how parents, education systems and youth-serving organizations can minimize opportunities for abuse to occur.  

A recent report released by the Enough Abuse Campaign and Prevent Child Abuse America examines state policies to prevent the sexual abuse of children. While it appears that some progress has been made, the country has a long way to go to effectively address the crisis and implement practical prevention policies. For example, fewer than a third of states require their schools to educate all employees and students about how to prevent, identify and respond to child sexual abuse. Some laws merely encourage such training but offer no guidance or expectation about what the training should cover. As a result, some school districts are directed to create training curricula on a topic they are ill-prepared to either develop or deliver. Variability in implementation is stark across states; each works to invent its own wheel.  

The report challenges the federal government to play a critical role in setting standards and assisting states to implement them. Among its recommendations, the report:

  • Calls on President Biden to appoint a policy czar on child sexual abuse prevention and a federal interagency task force to work with private sector prevention leaders to identify, endorse and promote a set of standards, best policies and practices for the field.
  • Urges the Department of Health and Human Services to fund a network of training and technical assistance resource centers to implement best policies and programs in each of the country’s 10 federal regions.

Our policies can help to create the safe, stable environments that children need to thrive. By joining federal, state and community efforts to develop and adopt a comprehensive set of prevention programs and policies, we can end the silence, shame and denial around child sexual abuse, ensure the well-being of our children and reclaim their right to a safe and healthy childhood. Child sexual abuse is preventable, and its prevention must become a national priority.

J. Bart Klika, MSW, Ph.D., is the chief research officer at Prevent Child Abuse America and a research faculty member at the Florida State University College of Social Work.

Jetta Bernier is the executive director of MassKids, the Massachusetts chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, and directs the Enough Abuse Campaign.

Tags Child abuse Child protection Child sexual abuse Child welfare Joe Biden

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