Child sex abuse allegations in the news recently have left some parents wondering about the safety of their own children. Commentator Michele Booth Cole, executive director of Safe Shores, a children's advocacy center in D.C., says child sex abuse is all too prevalent in the Washington area, but there are things adults can do to address the problem.
The Penn State and Syracuse scandals have riveted national attention to what is usually not an everyday conversation topic for most Americans: child sexual abuse. Yet, while today's high-profile allegations are connected with college campuses, child sexual abuse occurs in epidemic proportions across the country - including in places where some might least expect.
Child sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity that predators create by seeking access to places where children live, learn, and play. Often that place is the child's home or the predator's home, according to a landmark report released by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
That finding plays out each day in the District of Columbia. Some 70 percent of cases that arrive at The DC Children's Advocacy Center where I work, involve child sexual abuse. And in roughly 90 percent of such cases, the young victims know their perpetrators.
In one case I was involved with, a very popular elementary school teacher was found to have been sexually abusing children in the school where he taught. This teacher was an intellectually gifted young man with a degree from a top-ranked university, and he tutored children one-on-one in their homes. He skillfully gained the trust of parents so that he could have unsupervised and unquestioned access to their children.
It's scary stuff. So what can adults do to combat child abuse when perpetrators strive to insinuate themselves into children's lives?
First, learn the facts about child sexual abuse - like on average more than 10 percent of children are sexually abused by their 18th birthdays.
Second, learn how to recognize and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse. Some signs of abuse may include a dramatic change in a child's behavior; or withdrawal and depression; or, trying to appear like everything is fine.
Third, report known or suspected child abuse to child abuse hotlines or by calling 9-1-1.
Fourth, keep the conversation about this tough issue going - both with children (in an age appropriate way) and other adults.
And fifth, get informed about which prevention policies should be in place in schools and youth programs, and then demand that those policies be implemented, or created, if they don't exist where your child is.
Those who perpetrate sexual crimes on children count on adults' discomfort, denial and inaction. So, we have to be aware, be knowledgeable, and pay close attention to children and the people around them. And we must report abuse when we see or suspect it. Protecting children is an adult's job.
Michele Booth Cole is Executive Director of Safe Shores, a children's advocacy center in Washington, D.C.