The Safety Principles: Defending Children from Sexual Abuse
by Stephanie Adams, MA, LPC
How high on your priority list is protecting those you love from sexual abuse and assault? Most of you would say it is pretty high—there’s little more important than protecting those we love. But at the same time, most of you would be unsure of what to do about that priority.
A great deal of the information we are exposed to on sexual abuse prevention is outdated or just plain wrong. Television perpetuates the stereotype of the sexual predator who wears the guise of “the stranger in the bushes.” In reality, about two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. It might be a relative, a neighbor, a church member, a teacher, a pastor, or even a friend.
That’s why, when we think about how to protect our loved ones from sexual abuse, we must first look in our own backyards.
As home educators, your “own backyard” includes your home, your church or faith community, and your homeschool group or co-op. If you want to be effective in preventing sexual abuse and protecting those who have experienced abuse, this is where you need to start setting up your defenses.
This can be a scary idea for some of us. I’m a homeschool graduate, and I know that part of the appeal of homeschooling is to protect those we love from dangerous situations like school shootings, drug use, and unhealthy sexual behavior. We really want to think, “It can’t happen here.” Everyone wants to feel safe, and confronting the issue of sexual predators among us can make us feel very unsafe.
But addressing this issue does not invalidate the many great things that homeschooling has to offer, such as excellent education, strong family systems, and yes, a generally safer environment. It simply acknowledges that no matter where you are, no matter what kind of people you surround yourself with, sexual predators exist everywhere. And sadly, as a sexual assault recovery counselor, I know abusers can exploit a false sense of security to target children and teenagers in even the safest surroundings.
But they can’t easily succeed in settings where measures have been set up to defend against them. You can use three safety principles to defeat those predators before they harm your loved ones, or to intervene if they have managed to hurt someone you know. These principles are tools that you can share with your homeschool community or church leaders to help promote safety. But first and foremost, you can use these principles to evaluate your own immediate situation. If you find gaps that make your situation vulnerable, you can intervene now to keep your loved ones safe.
The first principle is safe community. Check within your community for vulnerabilities that perpetrators can use to exploit potential victims. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do organizations within your environment require background checks on anyone, male or female, who works regularly with children? (Though most abusers are male, women do perpetrate sexual abuse as well.) Strict screening procedures are one thing that most state-sponsored agencies do right; organizations that do not take government monies may not be required to conduct background checks on employees or volunteers who come into contact with children. If an organization does not conduct background checks, you may want to withdraw your children.
- Ask whether nursery workers, aides, and children’s leaders follow the rule of two. The rule of two says that two adults must always be present when it is necessary to be alone with a vulnerable person. This protects your child from abuse, and it also protects the organization from liability. The rule of two is especially important when your child is being taken to the bathroom or being helped to change clothes.
- Do organizations around you require comprehensive sign-in/sign-out procedures to ensure only authorized individuals pick up your child? Do your babysitters know to release your children only to people you have approved?
- Have you sought education on how to recognize signs of sexual abuse and signs of sexual predators? Both victims and predators exhibit recognizable signs, but most people are never told how to identify them. You can correct that by seeking education.
- Have you taught your children and teens about the right to say no to anyone who touches them inappropriately? As a child, my parents taught me the value of respecting and obeying adults—and that’s not a bad thing! But as a counselor, I know that children up to ages 9–11 simply cannot understand when there is an exception to that rule. They may not comprehend that it’s okay to be disobedient to an adult who is asking them to do something inappropriate, or that it’s okay to tell you if this happens. (For help teaching your children about the right to say no, please download my free guide, The Homeschool Parent’s Tips for Talking to Your Children about Sexual Abuse.)
The second principle is safe communication. When children or adolescents try to share that they have been abused, they need to know that someone will truly hear and help them. This principle is something you can use both with your own children and with any of their friends who may reach out to you. Safe parents gain a reputation, and your own kids’ trust in you will likely extend to your children's friends. Here’s what you can do:
- Believe every time. Children rarely make up accounts of sexual abuse, especially when they would not normally have the words to explain the sexual misconduct that happened to them. Adolescents may sometimes make up abuse for attention or to cover up sexual mistakes, but if a teenager is lying, his or her story will fall apart eventually. If a child or teen is telling the truth and is disbelieved, he or she may never work up the courage to share again. This allows the perpetrator to continue abusing. That’s why I say to believe every time—because it’s not worth the risk to do otherwise.
- Don’t blame the victim. It might be tempting to ask the victim what he or she was wearing or might have done to encourage the abuse. This is a normal expression of shock; you are probably trying to understand what happened by asking these questions. But these questions feel judgmental to the victim, and that is exactly what the predator wants—for you to focus on the victim and lose sight of the reality that nothing excuses abuse. No one, under any circumstances, is ever justified to sexually abuse another.
- Don’t succumb to the authority bias. Not all pastors, spiritual leaders, teachers, doctors, and others with authority are abusers—but the fact that someone belongs to one of those professions does not mean that he or she cannot be an abuser. Sexual predators seek out opportunities to abuse, and positions of authority can be a platform for doing so with impunity. Treat everyone who is accused of sexual abuse as if they are equally likely to have done it as anyone else … because they are.
- Seek counseling on behalf of the victim. Sexual abuse does not have to destroy a person’s life, but every survivor needs help to deal with it. Every client I have ever counseled has thought that he or she could just ignore what happened. The fact that they were in my office saying this to me should make clear that this belief, in the end, wasn’t true. I understand that some of us are concerned that a counselor might undermine our faith, or try to come between parents and their children. But I am not the only counselor who understands that collaborating with the parents is essential to a child’s or teen’s recovery. I have no doubt that you can find a counselor who respects your faith and your role as a parent. Two very helpful tools for finding a counselor are Focus on the Family’s vetted therapist database and Psychology Today’s therapist listing, which allows you to search by religious orientation and specialty (sexual abuse).
- Most importantly, bring the abuse to the proper authorities, and follow up to make sure it hasn’t slipped through the cracks. The police must be notified if there is any chance of the perpetrator being brought to justice. Even if the case doesn’t go to trial, your complaint might prevent the perpetrator from having access to another victim.
- Tell your children in advance that you will do these things. Before anything ever happens, your children need to know that they can trust you to support them in these ways. Not only will this help them come to you if abuse happens, but the confidence this gives them can actually prevent them from being manipulated by a predator. One of an abuser’s favorite phrases to use is, “Your parents will never believe you.” That phrase has no power if the child already knows it to be false!
The third principle is safe correction. This means separating the perpetrator from access to vulnerable individuals.
- Well-meaning people often mistakenly think that it is possible to overcome an abuse situation by promoting reconciliation and forgiveness between the abuser and victim. This is not true—at least not in the sense of preserving safety. As I explain to my clients, sexual predators do not think like you do. They are not capable of stopping their behaviors without serious intervention and accountability. The people they abuse are not the people who should be responsible for helping them correct their behavior. Victims must be allowed to heal on their own terms, and abusers must be dealt with away from the people they have abused.
- Even if the abuse happened in the past, or happened outside of your organization or your family, it is still imperative that a person with a history of sexual abuse should never be allowed around children or teenagers. A predator in recovery is still a predator, and should not be with vulnerable individuals any more than an alcoholic should be offered a drink.
- Don’t allow any kind of victim-blaming. Abusers can be charismatic, charming, and likeable, and may hold positions of respect. They often choose victims who are troubled and even disliked. Again, this is designed to protect what they do. You can thwart this by politely but firmly affirming your belief in the victim’s story, whether it is your child or a friend of your child. This kind of support means the world to someone who has been abused.
Considering the possibility of sexual abuse happening to someone you love is scary, but doing so is exactly what you must do to help prevent it. Predators are already planning their strategies, which is why it’s so important that you remain one step ahead.
If your homeschool group doesn’t have a sexual abuse prevention policy, or has one that doesn’t cover the points listed above, I’d urge you to consider setting up a meeting to make one. Among my clients who have survived sexual abuse or assault as children, I’d estimate 80–90% of them would have suffered less or would have escaped abuse entirely if the above measures had been in place. By taking action now, you can be part of protecting the next generation.
If you do not have a homeschool group, these principles are just as valuable. I learned from my own parents that there is no more formidable force than moms and dads protecting their children. While it is impossible to prevent every bad thing that might impact your children's lives, you can greatly reduce their chances of being victimized, and you can ensure that you are the safe haven they turn to if they have already been abused.
Stephanie Adams, MA, LPC, is a homeschool graduate and licensed counselor who serves sexual trauma survivors and teens with anxiety in Dallas and through online counseling in Texas. You can learn more about sexual abuse prevention and recovery on her blog, Survivor Is a Verb: Letters of Hope and Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, or by downloading her guide The Homeschool Parent’s Tips for Talking to Your Children about Sexual Abuse. Stephanie welcomes emails from parents, homeschool leaders, and adult survivors of abuse at firstname.lastname@example.org.