Taking action to prevent child sexual abuse: ending the pandemic within a pandemic

By Jetta Bernier

December 17, 2020


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Child sexual abuse, according to the America Medical Association, is “a silent, violent epidemic.”  An estimated 42 million Americans living today are victims. One-third of them are infants, toddlers, school-aged children and teens; the average age of victims is eight.  Children from every community and from all economic, racial and cultural groups are included in the estimated one in ten children who are victims. 

A third of the child sexual abuse is committed by immediate or extended family members and two-thirds by someone else in their circle of trust. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, one in ten or 4.5 million students report experiencing some form of sexual abuse or misconduct by a school employee sometime between Kindergarten and 12th grade.

During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders have kept many safe, but they have also placed many children at increased risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.  For the first time ever, the National Sexual Assault Hotline has reported that half its calls are from minors. Two-thirds say their abusers are family members; 79% say they were living with the person hurting them. 

Teachers, school nurses and social workers normally make up the largest group of professionals mandated to report child abuse (21% of 4.3 million referrals in 2018.) Virtual learning, however, has reduced opportunities for them to detect signs of abuse in their students, resulting in sharp decreases in reports to Child Protective Services.  Importantly, opportunities for children to disclose abuse and safety concerns to these trusted adults have been largely shut down.

Compounding the risk, children are spending an unprecedented amount of time online, while most parents are occupied with working from home or traveling to their essential jobs, unable to supervise children consistently while they are online. In fact, two-thirds of parents don’t talk to their children about vital online safety concerns.

Meanwhile, online predators are boldly reaching out to mainstream audiences to draw more users, more demand. As a result, online systems have become flooded with illegal child sexual abuse content. The F.B.I. and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children confirm this unprecedented increase. Consider that in 2008, the Center’s Cyber Tipline received 100,000 reports of online sexual enticement of children; a decade later, 18.4 million reports involving 45 million images were received. Between January and September of this year reports increased by nearly 100% compared to the same time period last year. As the WePROTECT Global Alliance has simply and powerfully stated, “…the sheer volume is almost inconceivable.”  It is no wonder then that law enforcement, public health officials and child advocates are now referring to child sexual abuse and online exploitation as “a pandemic within a pandemic.”

A look behind the numbers confirms that the impact of sexual abuse on children and teens can profoundly affect their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn and succeed academically, and their ability to form healthy social and emotional relationships. The trauma of sexual abuse often expresses itself in adulthood through depression, substance abuse, broken relationships, or criminal behavior. Our nation spends billions each year as law enforcement agencies, courts, child protection, health and mental health systems and social services programs struggle to deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Prevention holds the best promise of reducing the staggering human and fiscal costs.

Some propose that increasing public awareness about the problem is a key first step. The reality, however, is that citizens are already reminded with sickening regularity about the extent of sexual abuse and its devastating impact on our children and communities. Names like Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nasser, Rapper R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein and so many more have infiltrated our national consciousness. Every day, dozens of other names of those arrested for child sexual abuse are reported in local media. We hold our breath waiting to learn about the next parent, neighbor, teacher, clergy, police officer, public figure, youth counselor, theatre director, tutor, etc. whose sexual misconduct has violated our children and our trust. 

Clearly, we applaud the efforts of the #MeToo movement that challenges the sexual assault of adults in the workplace. Children and their advocates, however, have remained largely on the sidelines of this conversation. What is required now is to grow the movement to prevent the sexual assault of children in their “workplaces,” that is, in the places children live, learn, and play - their homes, schools and communities.

MassKids, the nation’s oldest non-profit child advocacy organization, has been taking bold action to do just that. Its Enough Abuse Campaign, adopted in eight states, has been working since 2002 to build coalitions of key stakeholders, educating parents, training a broad range of professionals, promoting prevention policies in schools and youth organizations, and advocating for laws to ensure justice for survivors, accountability for abusers, and the prevention of future abuse. Its unique online action campaign, Pledge to Prevent™, is capitalizing on the public’s heightened awareness and is building the knowledge and skills of everyday citizens to take specific, concrete and achievable actions to prevent sexual abuse from ever occurring. 

Partnering with parents, national organizations, sexual abuse survivors, college students, etc., the campaign is challenging people everywhere to choose one of over 25 pledges as either a Learner to get the basic facts, a Prevention Influencer to educate others, a Safe Community Promoter to engage schools and youth organizations, or a Movement Builder to promote prevention legislation and policies. Pledgers immediately receive resources matched to their specific pledge in order to build their knowledge and confidence, and empower them to carry out their selected prevention action. 

The campaign’s ambitious goal is to reach 42 million pledgers – the number of estimated U.S. victims living today. A national launch is planned this April to commemorate Child Abuse Prevention Month. “Celebrity survivors” from entertainment, music, and sports are being sought to serve as Pledge Ambassadors who will then challenge thousands of their social media followers to take action. 

So as the world’s “annus horribilis” finally closes, and we look with hope to a New Year, let’s pledge to make the prevention of child sexual abuse and exploitation a national priority. Let’s raise our voices and break the silence, shame, and denial that has allowed abusers to go unchallenged for so long. Let’s get educated, take action, and reclaim the right of all our children to healthy and safe childhoods.

Jetta Bernier is Executive Director of MassKids, the Boston-based child advocacy organization which leads the Enough Abuse Campaign, a child sexual abuse prevention initiative that has been adopted in 8 states. She is Policy Co-Chair for the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.