Shocking cases of child sex abuse have rocked the American public in recent months, but experts want people to know that there is hope for victims and that they can heal.
According to a report in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, child sexual abuse can include a wide range of sexual behaviors that take place between a child and an older person. Any behavior towards a child intended to arouse the older person in a sexual way is considered sex abuse.
It can include sexual kissing, touching, oral, vaginal and anal sex. In most cases, no regard is given to what effect the behavior could have on the child.
Sadly, most offenders have an existing relationship with the child or their family, according to the report. It could be a babysitter, neighbor, or family friend. 60 percent of abusers fall into that group.
According to Dr. Judith Cohen of the Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, one in every six young boys has been sexually abused, and one in every four young girls is abused. While Dr. Cohen suggests the sexual abuse of children in America has been an ongoing issue, she also says research shows it is decreasing.
She is reluctant to believe this, however.
“Some research shows [sexual abuse] is decreasing, but it’s hard to tell,” Dr. Cohen said. “So many victims don’t disclose abuse and states have different standards of defining child sex abuse, so it’s difficult to determine the true rate.”
In fact, recent cases like that of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State football raise alarming underlying issues to child sex abuse, like how someone who witnessed the act could keep it a secret for years.
“It is such a taboo that adults have a desire to believe the child is mistaken- it may have been an accident or there has been a misinterpretation,” Cohen said.
She added that in cases like Penn State, people don’t want to challenge high-profile figures for fear of being fired or being wrong about accusations.
Unfortunately, trusted institutions like churches, school campuses and sports teams have been at the center of recent cases. The Penn State and Syracuse scandals have opened the country’s eyes to the dangers their children face in places that people usually trust. But abuse has occurred in these places for a number of years and has been covered up.
A report chronicling the progress of such institutions was released Wednesday by Cardinal Sean P. O’Mally of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The report was released on the 10th anniversary of a Boston Globe report detailing the pattern of covering up abuse in the diocese.
The archdiocese has settled about 800 sexual abuse accusations and is providing care to about 300 abuse survivors since the scandal, according to The Globe. The archdiocese has given training in identifying and reporting suspected abuse to nearly half a million children and adults.
However, some feel there needs to be more reform in institutions to prevent child sex abuse. Victims of the sex scandal ten years ago said the church has failed in reforming, according to The Globe’s report.
Bernie McDavid, who was abused in the 1960s, told the paper that the church has failed miserably.
“Nothing has been done [except] whatever the courts has made them do,” he said. “I’m so hurt by all this.”
He said that the Penn State case put everything right back in his face.
According to the Information on Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, victims of child sex abuse can suffer from post-traumatic syndrome disorder. They may suffer from nightmares, act in a nervous or upset way or even act out aspects of their abuse in their play.
Dr. Cohen says that it can lead to physical conditions as well as mental disorders.
“In addition to PTSD, depression and suicide, victims can suffer from allergies, asthma, problems with their immune system, and heart conditions,” Cohen said. “It can also lead to future problematic relationships and substance abuse.”
Despite the heartbreaking problem, Cohen wants people to know that there are ways victims and parents can heal themselves and live productive lives. She said the most proven method is a program called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which she helped develop.
According to Cohen, it has passed ten different trials and is proven to help children recover from depression and shame. TFCBT was developed at the Medical University of South Carolina and offers a web-based learning course.
Dr. Cohen also suggests that parents should do more to educate their children on sex abuse.
“Parents often do not provide information and detail about abuse that can help children,” Cohen said.
While Cohen pointed to fact that most adults are safe and care about children, there are warning signs that parents should look for, pertaining to sex abuse and their children.
“Encouraging parents not to visit without warning and singling out children for private trips should raise awareness,” Cohen said. “Any interaction where parents aren’t encouraged to be present should also raise awareness.”
According to Cohen, parents should encourage their children not to be alone with adults, and so should schools. She says that schools, parents and children should keep kids in pairs or groups to also protect adults from allegations of sex abuse.
She added that parents should teach kids about body safety and to know the difference between safe and unsafe touching. Open communication with children is very helpful to parents in preventing these crimes.