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Go Ask Mom

Amanda Lamb: To prevent child sexual abuse, check your gut

Posted June 11

When our kids are little, we are very vigilant about teaching them about things like good touch and bad touch. As they get older, I think we just assume they know the deal, and that they will be safe. As a journalist who has covered child sexual abuse for 28 years, I think this is a bad assumption.

I spoke with Cary clinical psychologist Don Azevedo about this topic. He counsels families, couples and children and has worked with survivors of child sexual abuse.

"You are at the greatest risk from the people you trust the most," Azevedo points out. He says family members are the most likely sexual predators. Next in line are those he calls "significant others," people who are integral to our children's lives - at school, in sports, in church, in all outside activities.

Truly, it's not just about educating kids, it's about educating parents on what to look for when it comes to protecting children of all ages, including teenagers, from abuse.

It's important to review this information as a family, especially as the summer begins and children head to camp or participate in teams or activities where you don't know the adults in charge.

"It's about being mindful without being paranoid," Azevedo says.

Most national organizations have a policy where a child is never allowed to be unsupervised with an individual adult. In Boy Scouts and at many churches, they have a policy called "two-deep leadership," meaning if your child needs to go to the restroom, ride in a vehicle or be in any other confined space, there must be two adults present so that the child is never left alone with one adult.

Some organizations flip the equation and make sure that every adult is always with more than one child. This is especially important in overnight camps or on overnight trips. This is a fair question to ask when your child is participating in an activity - what is their policy is on this issue?

Azevedo says all volunteers who work with children should ideally be trained in this technique because it not only protects kids, but it protects adults from someone making a false accusation.

"Grooming" is a common technique that child predators use, especially with older children.

If any adult is giving your children "special attention," flattering them; spending time with them outside the regular hours of the activity; buying them things, including meals, treats or gifts; hosting parties at their home; or taking them on out-of-town trips, these are signs something may not be right. Ask any investigator or prosecutor and they will tell you that these are some of the major signs to look for even in adults you think you know well.

"Every time an adult gives special attention to your child, it is always a bad thing? No. But there are appropriate ways to do it - seeking permission first from the parents. Otherwise, it can be a big red flag," Azevedo says.

With teenagers, the equation gets even trickier. In North Carolina, the law does not permit teenagers to consent to a sexual relationship with an adult. The adult, not the teenager, is always at fault under our laws. But perpetrators can be very convincing in making the young person believe they are complicit.

"They'll convince the teen this is actually love," Azevedo says.

In many situations, incidents involving child sexual abuse are swept under the carpet to avoid negative consequences for the organization and shame to the victims. Azevedo points out this fails to support the greater good and often leads to more child abuse in a new setting for the perpetrator.

"People want to get them out of the situation they are in and be done with it, wash their hands of it. But what about keeping the next kids safe?" Azevedo says.

It is part of our culture to trust people, especially people who work or volunteer with young people because we want to believe their motives are pure. For the most part, they are. But, like every other issue in parenting, dealing with this problem takes a village. If something doesn't feel right in your gut, it probably isn't. 

I have interviewed many adult survivors of sexual abuse over the years. Bottom line, it destroys lives. So, talk to your kids, check your gut, and help keep the village safe.

Amanda is the mom of two, a reporter for WRAL-TV and the author of several books, including some on motherhood. Find her here on Mondays.

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