I spent three hours this weekend in a dank church basement. It was a sunny, beautiful fall morning, and while Chris and the kids enjoyed the farmers’ market and park, I sat in an uncomfortable chair learning about child sexual abuse, not the most comfortable of topics. But, attending the session is a requirement for all parents who want to volunteer at the school my kids attend, so I had no choice.
The VIRTUS “Protecting God’s Children Program” outlines ways we can protect kids from child sexual abuse. Although the root of the program stems from the Catholic Church’s horrid child abuse scandals, it now aims to protect kids from sexual predators in and outside of a religious program. And, the nationwide statistics are alarming: 10% of males are molested and 20% of females are molested. 89% of victims are molested by someone they know. Chances are, a friend or a family member is dealing with the pain of this crime. It breaks my heart.
To be honest, prior to VIRTUS training I was totally rolling my eyes about it. I procrastinated for a year. I easily found plenty of excuses for putting it off. But, now that we have two kids in school and lots of fun volunteer opportunities on the horizon, I knew it was time to give up a Saturday morning.
Surprisingly, the three hours went by rather fast. After the session I felt more empowered, and I now think that if all parents spent a few hours focusing on ways to keep kids safer, kids would be safer. We are all in this together – it really does take a village to raise a child – and if I know other good people are watching out for the best interest of my kids, I can sleep a little better at night.
I know most parents won’t have the opportunity to attend a VIRTUS style training session, so here are some key things we can all do to protect all kids:
1. Know the Warning Signs: Predators prefer hanging out with kids. They might offer gifts to kids without parents’ permission. They often ignore rules, considering themselves above social norms or the law. Predators look for kids who might be even a little bit vulnerable, so take the time to talk with your kids every day about everything.
2. Control Access: For me, this is the most important step. I choose who my kids spend time with. I choose who can and cannot be alone with my kids. I choose where and when my kids leave my sight. If I have a weird feeling or if I don’t know someone very well, I will not leave my kids.
3. Monitor all Programs: Before signing your kids up for school or lessons, find out what the program does to protect kids. Background checks? Open door policy all the time? Mandatory instructor training? Are you allowed (encouraged?) to make unannounced visits to check in? It is ok to ask too many questions when making sure the program you are signing your kids up for takes every step possible in hiring only safe, responsible and good people.
4. Be Aware: Know who your kids hang out with. Know the adults in their lives. Ask questions and show sincere interest in what they are up to. Let them know that you know all that is going on – especially in their on-line lives. If your kids have unexplained bruises or suddenly stop taking care of regular hygiene, ask questions.
5. Communicate Your Concerns: if you see something, say something. If you get a weird feeling about someone, speak up. People who report alleged child abuse in good faith cannot be held liable for damages under criminal or civil law. Anyone can make a report to the following agencies without giving a name.
*Children & Family Services: 800-25-ABUSE
*National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: 800-843-5678
*Cyber TipLine (The CyberTipline receives tips regarding suspected crimes of sexual exploitation committed against children. More than 1.9 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation have been made to the CyberTipline between 1998 and June 2013.): http://www.missingkids.com/cybertipline/
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