Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.
As Child Abuse Prevention Month draws to a close, it’s critical that the members of our community continue do everything they can to keep kids safe from abuse. And that’s not only during the month of April – it’s a year-round responsbility that requires vigilance, care and compassion.
At the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, child safety is our top priority and we are committed to creating safe spaces for children to learn, grow and thrive. To support those goals, our staff works regularly with external experts who provide continuous training and education in abuse prevention. That’s because we believe that when it comes to preventing abuse, knowledge is the most powerful tool we have.
Unfortunately, abuse continues to impact the lives of far too many children. According to data from the nonprofit Darkness to Light, one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Ninety percent of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser and roughly 30 percent of children are abused by family members. More than half never tell anyone.
The physical signs of abuse aren’t always obvious, but often exist. However, emotional or behavioral changes are common. Trauma may be the root of what is typically labeled “bad” or “difficult” behavior and can present itself in the forms of physical aggression or bullying, non-compliant behavior and rebellion. Conversely, a child who is being abused may be overly compliant, displaying behavior that seems “too perfect.” Children may also show signs of anxiety, depression and fear and might withdraw from friends and activities. Some will wet the bed while others have nightmares and suicidal thoughts.
One key thing to understand about spotting abuse has to do with the behavior of offenders. They often operate through a process called “grooming,” which is the deliberate process of gradually initiating and maintaining a sexual relationship with victims in secrecy. Grooming allows offenders to slowly overcome boundaries long before sexual abuse occurs. On the surface, grooming can look like a close relationship between the offending adult, the targeted child and possibly even the child’s caregivers. The grooming process is often misleading because the offender may be well-known or highly regarded in the community. As a result, it’s easy to trust them. However, if you know the red flags to look for, you can better recognize if an adult is a danger to a child. Warning signs include:
- Pressing boundaries or breaking the rules to give a child special attention
- Giving inappropriate physical affection
- Sympathetic listening that starts to build barriers between a child and their parents or friends
- Offers to help the family in order to gain alone time with a child
- Gaining access to a child via the internet
If you suspect a child is being abused, that’s enough to make a report. You don’t need to have proof, only reasonable suspicion, meaning that you have witnessed mistreatment or boundary violations in either the child, the adult or both. Another reason you can make a report is because you have received a disclosure from a child about abuse, neglect or boundary violations toward them. Child sexual abuse reports should be made to the police and/or state child protective services and can be reported online or by calling (800) 962 -2873. If you have questions, call the Darkness to Light helpline at (866) FOR-LIGHT or text LIGHT to 741741 to get answers from trained counselors at no charge.
Follow the Y on social media as we highlight the 5 Days of Action from June 7 to 11 with more tools and tips for identifying and preventing child abuse.
Carla Struckhoff is the Director of Human Resources at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. As a Certified Praesidium Guardian, she is dedicated to educating staff and the larger community on how to recognize and prevent child abuse.