Children with developmental disabilities often have little agency over what happens to their bodies. Any steps towards instilling a sense of body ownership will help reduce vulnerability. Use proper names for private parts. Talk openly about body hygiene and give your child the opportunity to participate in caring for themselves as much as possible. Reinforce the concept of privacy by explaining that private parts are covered by clothing. Let your child know specifically which adults and caregivers will be helping them with bathroom needs. Be sure to take the time to consider your family’s parameters when posting on social media. Body privacy and healthy boundaries should extend into all areas of life!
Do not force your child to give or receive physical affection. Ask others to respect your child’s boundaries by offering a high five or fist bump instead of a hug or kiss. Reinforce age-appropriate personal space, such as sitting next to peers and not on an adults lap, and don’t forget to require your child to respect other people’s personal space as well.
3. Ask about policies.
Find out what protocols are in place to keep children safe at your school, childcare, faith community and extracurricular activities. Are the staff aware of these policies and do they follow the safety protocols? How are suspicions of abuse reported? Does the staff feel their reports of abuse will be taken seriously? If there are no clear policies in place, ask the organization to adopt policies to ensure the safety of all children and the integrity of the organization.
4. Reduce opportunity for abuse.
Minimize one-on-one situations. Ask therapists and teachers to keep the door open during sessions. Monitor your child’s time with older children and student mentors. Drop by unannounced. You have the right to know how your child is spending his/her time and the other adults working with your child should be happy to let you know what your child is learning!
5. Make “No Secrets” a family rule.
Secrets are never necessary and can be hurtful. Perpetrators of sexual abuse often isolate and manipulate a child by asking them to keep secrets. Establish a family culture of open communication and use surprises instead of secrets when looking forward to sharing a gift or special treat.
Research shows 90% of perpetrators are someone the child and family already know and trust. Abusers are incredibly manipulative individuals who understand they must earn the trust of a child’s family and community in order to successfully hide sexual abuse. Grooming is the process used by a perpetrator to slowly desensitize a child and his/her parents. This is accomplished by acting in such a way as to gain trust and favor over time which enables the abuser to get the child into 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. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable or you suspect grooming behaviors, speak up! Always trust your gut. Set limits and stick to your boundaries. It’s important that the person violating the boundaries understands that you are willing to stand up for what is right and will remove your child from the situation when limits are crossed.
Many of the adults in our child’s life have never considered the increased vulnerability of a child with disabilities. Provide them with simple education and awareness of sexual abuse prevention. A little education goes a long way by expanding the number of alert caregivers who may detect an unsafe situation before you and feel empowered to speak up.