Why Stranger Danger is Fake News: How to Reduce Opportunity by Understanding Who Abuses

Research consistently shows at least 1 in 10 children will experience some type of sexual abuse by the time they turn 18. Children with developmental disabilities are three times more likely to be victimized. It’s so easy to blame the problem of child sexual assault on corrupt culture, or assume it only happens to “other people.” But sexual abuse knows no boundaries. It’s present in all communities, socioeconomic classes and cultures. Abuse is happening in all the places where our children should be safe: homes, churches and schools. Children are abused most often by people the child knows and trusts. Many of you reading this are survivors of childhood sexual assault. I hope these statistics remind you that you are not alone and you are not to blame for what was done to you. If you have not personally experienced abuse, the statistics prove you most definitely know and love a survivor of abuse.

I’m well aware that people are not excited to read about the victimization of children, but here’s the thing: parents already know and worry about sexual abuse, especially those of us with a child with developmental disabilities. So instead of living with constant anxiety and a sense of helplessness, let’s talk about the problem so we can recognize, respond, and ultimately prevent it from happening in the first place. Preventing sexual abuse of children requires adopting an overall awareness and mindset; learning about who abuses and how they do so is crucial in preventing abuse.

Research shows at least 90% of perpetrators are someone the child and family already know and trust. 

This reality makes it critically important to learn how to identify the behavior of potential offenders. In the Down syndrome community, we have the advantage of a close knit community. Let’s take time to understand more about offenders so we can stand up together and demand safety for our kids. We know our children are worth the conversation. 

Characteristics of Perpetrators:

-General lack of boundaries: Invades child’s physical space. Finds ways to get the child in one-on-one situations. Criticizes parent’s rules.

-Emotionally manipulative: Makes the child feel responsible for the perpetrator’s emotional well-being. Asks child to keep secrets. Gives excessive gifts. Uses threats to keep the abuse a secret.

-Uses “grooming” techniques: Grooming is the process used by a perpetrator to slowly desensitize a child and his/her parents. They accomplish this by gaining trust and favor over time in order to get the child in isolated situations where abuse can occur. A perpetrator may slowly cross physical boundaries in order to test a child’s reaction and ability to keep a secret. Darkness to Light explains, “Grooming is a process by which offenders gradually draw victims into a sexual relationship and maintain that relationship in secrecy. At the same time, offenders may also fill roles within the victims’ families that make them trusted and valued family friends. One of the scariest things about grooming is that it is highly successful, allowing offenders to slowly overcome natural boundaries long before actual sexual abuse occurs.”

Juvenile Perpetrators:

Adolescents and children make up ⅓ of perpetrators (StopItNow.org). Juvenile perpetrators are typically older and more physically or emotionally powerful than the victim. A child or adolescent may sexually violate another child for a number of reasons. It’s possible the offending child has been exposed to sexual content that is too mature for them to process or has experienced their own victimization. This article by Stop It Now can help you gain a better understanding of the reasons behind a juvenile offender’s behavior. If you have concerns or questions regarding what is an appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, don’t be afraid to ask your pediatrician. Your doctor should welcome the opportunity to discuss healthy development and help you determine if further help or assessment is needed.

Reduce Vulnerability:

The most powerful way we can prevent sexual abuse is to minimize one-on-one situations. This can prove to be a challenge when our children with Down syndrome are often in one-on-one environments for therapies and education. We must hold all adults accountable for the safety of our children. Communicating strong boundaries, asking questions about safety protocols, limiting one-on-one time between adults and children, reducing isolating situations, and exercise the right to drop by unannounced should be welcomed and encouraged by all the adults in your child’s life.

In most cases, the people helping our children are wonderful people who truly care about our child. No matter how much you trust a teacher, coach or sitter – still speak up! I’ve found that a little education goes a long way and most of these helpers want to instill a culture of safety, but may have never considered the vulnerability of our child with disabilities. If we are all on the same page, it’s easier to create a higher standard of safety for our children. Providing simple education and awareness of sexual abuse prevention to the adults in your child’s life also expands the number of alert caregivers who may even pick up on an unsafe situation before you do!  If anyone tries to make you feel guilty for expressing concern and placing firm boundaries, then it is time to let them go. No one should ever criticize you for prioritizing your child’s safety and well-being.

The more we learn about the behavior of perpetrators, the more equipped we are to recognize compromising situations and speak up for our children. This post provides just a brief summary and I encourage you to check out websites like RAINN.org and StopItNow.org. If you are a teacher, professional, volunteer, or really anyone in the life of a child, the website Darkness2Light.org is an invaluable training resource on child sexual abuse prevention and reporting. For religious leaders, GRACE is dedicated to specifically helping churches recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse.

Talking about child sexual abuse is difficult, but we are not helpless or without hope. The Down syndrome community has the ability to change the statistics by empowering ourselves and each other with the knowledge to prevent abuse. We are a close-knit community who knows how to create change and we must be intentional in establishing higher standards that hold all adults accountable. “Brave leaders are never silent around the hard things. Our job is to excavate the unsaid.” -Brene Brown

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