Child sexual abuse is a huge and hidden problem

Last week, we wrote about the arrest of a Guilderland man, accused of engaging in oral sex with a 3-year-old child at the Westmere Elementary School playground Saturday morning. This editorial is not to condemn the man, James C. Hockenbury — he is innocent until proven guilty. Rather, it is to raise awareness about the problem of the sexual abuse of children.

The numbers are as shocking as the act. In a year, about one in 12 children are sexually abused, according to a report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center; about one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused before the age of 17.

The Guilderland Police have concerns, Deputy Chief Curtis Cox said, because the 48-year-old Hockenbury had worked with children for 30 years — at local schools, in local day-care centers, and in local churches. He was also active in local ambulance squads and fire departments. Cox noted that a child as young as 3 may not be able to report sexual abuse.

His hope is that parents will talk to their children and, if they learn of anything untoward, they will report it to the police.

The Guilderland schools — Hockenbury had worked in three of them as an aid and monitor over the years — sent students home with a tip sheet for their parents on how to talk about child abuse. Sure, it may be an uncomfortable conversation, but we urge parents to broach the topic with their children. Even if children never came into contact with Hockenbury, they may be able to share something that happened to them or one of their friends.

The tip sheet stressed these important words, aimed at the child: “No matter what, abuse is never your fault and you don’t deserve it. It’s normal to feel upset, angry, and confused when someone hurts you. But don’t blame yourself or worry that other swill be angry with you.”

It also stresses, “If you think that you are being abused, the bravest and most important thing you can do is tell someone you trust. Never keep it a secret.”

There has been an important shift in recent years. Formerly, prevention efforts centered on empowering children to keep themselves safe from abuse. The burden of prevention now has shifted from the child to the community.

One of the planks in that new platform, as outlined in the “National Plan to Prevent the Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children,” developed by the National Coalition To Prevent Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, is to raise public awareness of the problem and its solutions.

The national plan says our future as a society is at risk unless childhood sexual abuse is curbed. It says the cost in the United States is more than $23 billion annually. For example, health-care costs are 16 percent higher for a woman who experienced child sexual abuse and 36 percent higher for women who experienced both physical and sexual abuse.

A Minnesota report showed the costs of sexual violence, including crimes against children, are 3.3 times as much as the costs of alcohol-impaired driving in the state — the costs of sexual violence break down to $1,540 per resident with half of that the result from child sexual abuse — yet there are no state funds for prevention and limited federal funds.

But the costs go beyond dollars and cents and the hurt can last a lifetime. We wrote the heartbreaking story last year of a 31-year-old woman, a Guilderland graduate, who was sexually abused as a child and turned to drugs to blunt the pain. She died of an overdose.

Child sexual abuse needs to be acknowledged as a public health problem and funds need to be spent to combat it. The national plan outlines six action areas: research; public awareness; ending the demand by speaking up against the hyper-sexualized treatment of children; policies at the local, state, and national level; collaborative practices; and funding.

As chilling as the statistics are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Child protective service and police data do not present the full extent of child sexual abuse since it is estimated less than half of sexually abused children tell anyone of sexual abuse and only 3 percent of the abuse cases are reported to police.

Telling is often further complicated because rarely is the abuser a stranger. Hockenbury, for example, had for several years babysat for the child he is alleged to have abused, Cox said. Strangers were the offenders in just 3 percent of sexual assaults of victims under age 5, and 5 percent of victims aged 6 through 11, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So the answer is not as simple as telling children to stay away from strangers. Tragically, many of the abusers are family members.

“Children often love and trust the people who sexually abuse them,” says the report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And, it also says, “They may feel confused because of the ways in which their bodies may have reacted to the abuse. Victims may also have a fear that there is something wrong with them or that they caused the abuse.”

So what can be done?

The national plan offers advice for communities including such things as encouraging organizations serving children to include training about sexual abuse, supporting quality treatment and advocacy services, learning to identify children with sexual behavior problems and refer them for assessment and treatment, and inviting speakers to parent meetings and sending home materials that highlight the seriousness and prevalence of the problem.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics consider anyone 17 or younger a child. And sexual abuse includes not just sex acts or child prostitution but also showing a child pornography or using a child in producing pornography as well as internet-based abuse, such as creating or distributing sexual images of children online or engaging in sexually explicit behaviors with children online.

On Friday, a 42-year old man, Mark A. Hotaling, was arrested for “engaging in sexually oriented on-line chats” with a 15-year-old Guilderland girl, according to Guilderland Police who made the arrest.

About one in five youth between the ages of 10 and 17 have received a sexual solicitation or approach over the internet, according to a Pew internet study, “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth.” One in four had unwanted exposure to pictures of naked people or people having sex, the study said.

Again, the tip of the iceberg is all that is visible as fewer than half told a parent about unwanted exposure to sexual material and only a quarter told a parent about sexual solicitations or approaches. Further, the Pew study found, fewer than 10 percent of sexual solicitations and only 3 percent of unwanted exposure episodes were reported to authorities such as law-enforcement agencies.

We must be mindful of the great mass hidden beneath the water if we don’t want our ship, our society, to sink.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has some advice for parents and concerned community members that all of us should follow.

The center urges developing positive, open communication with children, talking to them about their day, friends, feelings and concerns. “When they talk to you, listen and be supportive,” the center says.

Model and teach about healthy relationships and teach about healthy sexual development. Teach children that secrets about touching and being touched are not safe secrets to keep and help children to identify adults they trust in whom they can confide.

Monitor children’s internet use and talk to them about the dangers of internet predators. If a child or adolescent exhibits inappropriate sexual behavior, talk with a professional to assess the need for help. Support child abuse prevention programs in schools and other community settings and educate yourself about child sexual abuse.

Finally, and most importantly, if you suspect a child is being abused, contact the police or your local child protective services.

The children who are victimized should feel no shame. This problem, which is so huge but so hidden, must be faced squarely. The shame is on us if we don’t work to combat it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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