Ninety-two percent of adults recognize child sexual abuse is a problem.
Most of them don't know what to do about it, however.
Less than half of adults know the right person or organization to turn to if they learn a child has been victimized, according to a survey released by Darkness to Light, a nonprofit empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse. The survey states just one out of four people can recognize the signs of abuse.
The Child Advocacy Program of Chautauqua County logo.
P-J photos by Scott Shelters
"It's fear and denial," said Jana McDermott, LMSW, Child Advocacy Program of Chautauqua County executive director. "It's people thinking, 'I don't need to know about that. It's someone else's job.'"
Through a training program called Stewards of Children, McDermott hopes to teach 5,000 local adults how to prevent, recognize and react to child sexual abuse.
Created by Darkness to Light, the two-and-a-half hour program has already been implemented locally. Representatives from 30 youth-serving organizations have participated. Child Advocacy Program (CAP) has challenged each participant to train 100 people within the next year.
"We can move towards resolving child sexual abuse in our community," McDermott said. "Right now, no one is intentional about doing that. The Child Advocacy Program plans to be very intentional about changing the culture from one that lives in fear and denial and puts shame and disgrace to victims and families to one that feels confident and capable to do something different- one that can put perpetrators on notice that we're paying attention," she said.
Grants from the Sheldon Foundation and the United Way have made the workshops possible, but more funding will be needed to spread Stewards of Children throughout the community.
CAP hired Karen Yeverski to coordinate the program on a part-time basis. The organization would like to bring Yeverski to full-time status.
"It only costs $10 a person to train someone to become more protective," McDermott said. "Yet, to investigate a child sexual abuse case costs over $14,000. We need to put money up front for prevention instead of paying it on the backside for the social services and the consequences of child sexual abuse. We could be in every school, every PTA, every church organization."
According to McDermott, the U.S. spends more than $3.4 billion annually in immediate response to child sexual abuse.
"It creates anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, school problems, sexual-behavior problems," she said. "Imagine a culture without those. We could make considerable change, if we eliminated child sexual abuse, to those kinds of problems. For me, the next best thing to saving someone's soul is to save someone from child sexual abuse."
PREVENTING THE PROBLEM
The Stewards of Children training includes seven steps: learn the facts, minimize opportunity, talk about it, stay alert, make a plan, act on suspicions and get involved.
People are often reluctant to talk about the issue, according to McDermott.
"When I meet people and tell them what I do, it's kind of a non-starter," she said. "People are like, 'That's horrible; we can't talk about that.' We need to talk about it. We need to talk about what we can do.
''Nationally, when you hear cases come out and everyone is outraged, we need to turn that outrage into action. Every adult in our community can invest two-and-a-half hours in learning the simple steps to protecting our children,'' she said.
''They can increase their confidence, because what you saw in the (Jerry) Sandusky situation was potentially helpful adults look the other way. They're inexperienced in knowing how to handle a disclosure. We want to give people the confidence, the know how and we want them to have a different kind of consciousness - that they're aware of this problem, but they're not afraid of it,'' she said.
To learn more about attending or hosting a Stewards of Children workshop, call CAP at 338-9844 or visit capjustice.org. To report child sexual abuse, call the New York State Abuse Hotline at (800) 342-3720 or local law enforcement.
"If you ever have any cause to suspect, you don't need to investigate, you don't need to get facts, you need to call the hotline," McDermott said. "Let the people who can evaluate do an assessment. If it turns out there's something there, they'll get the child help. It happens often enough in our culture to suggest it's being passively accepted or sometimes deliberately overlooked, and that's what we saw in Centre County, Pa., where Penn State is. They are also starting the Stewards of Children program. They are taking prevention very seriously, and so are we in Chautauqua County. We have our own Sandusky cases in our community."
In 2010, Chautauqua County received 2,166 reports of suspected child abuse, according to CAP figures. More than 90 percent of sexually abused children know and trust their abusers, making the identification of warning signs crucial.
"There can be just a change in behavior for a kid who was happy and healthy," McDermott said. "Children communicate through behaviors; they don't usually talk about it. Most children don't disclose child sexual abuse. They might always want to be covered up, or it might be the opposite; they might not have good boundaries."
'A COMMUNITY PROBLEM, A COMMUNITY SOLUTION'
When abuse occurs, CAP coordinates a community response to bring healing, hope and justice to children and their families. CAP brings together the following agencies as part of its multi-disciplinary team: Child Protective Services; counseling, advocacy and medical services; the District Attorney's Office; and local, county and state law enforcement.
"They work together seamlessly," McDermott said. "They make things happen for kids. Instead of kids having to work around the system, we make the system work around the kids. Last year, we got a grant from the National Children's Alliance to provide on-site, trauma-focused, cognitive-behavior therapy. We now have three part-time counselors at the center providing therapy. It is phenomenal therapy. Kids want to come back. They attend their sessions, they work hard, they move forward and they heal."
CAP hopes to obtain funding to bring dedicated forensic interviewing under its roof. The organization seeks grant support, but also targets individual donations.
"We really want to have a larger population base, not only for funds, but for friends," McDermott said. "People get more comfortable talking about this when they know who they're talking to. The community has been fabulous to us. So many people have helped us out. It's really a community problem with a community solution."