Working to prevent child sexual abuse
Program focuses on educating adults in abuse prevention
The statistics are staggering — one in 10 children experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18. And studies have shown that consequences don’t stop with the abuse, which has been linked to adverse health, mental and societal issues later in life.
It’s an issue that is of paramount importance in building healthy communities. There is no magic solution to preventing child sexual abuse, but experts agree that education is key. The Ford Family Foundation is partnering with 11 nonprofits across Oregon and in Siskiyou County, Calif., to offer the Protect Our Children program, which seeks to prevent child abuse through community education.
Protect Our Children uses a nationally acclaimed training curriculum, Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children, to educate adults on how to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.
The goal of the three-year program, which began in March 2015, is to train more than 20,000 adults in rural Oregon and Northern California through the child sexual abuse prevention curriculum. “Each site is charged with reaching 5% of its population, which is widely acknowledged as the tipping point,” says Mary Beattie, who is coordinating the program for the Foundation. “When you reach 5%, you can create social change.”
The program gives participating agencies the resources they need to deliver the trainings in their communities, including training volunteers to moderate the three-hour curriculum, and also brings them together twice a year for additional training and a chance to network with others in the field.
A real need
Unfortunately, reminders abound of the importance of abuse prevention education. A hazing incident last summer involving the Philomath High School football team underscores the importance of the Protect Our Children training.
“The interesting thing about the Philomath situation is that we had been working closely with their superintendent in getting staff trained before the incident happened,” says Maria Ross, project coordinator for ABC House in Albany, one of the sites participating in the program. “Once that incident took place, scheduling of the training was expedited, and we were able to offer it very quickly. So far, we’ve trained two-thirds of the entire school district staff, with the remaining third scheduled for this spring.”
School personnel get more training than most on abuse prevention, Ross says, but it’s often in a classroom setting with little give-and-take. Participants in the Philomath training told her they appreciated the rare opportunity to interact with colleagues on the subject and engage in frank discussions.
“So often I hear that this is the most informative training that they have ever attended,” Ross says. “For some, it’s the first time the silence has been broken on the issue. People typically leave the training feeling energized and empowered — not depressed.”
Participating sites are taking different approaches to involving the community as they work toward their 5% goal.
The Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County has found success with hosting a series of ice bucket-type challenges on social media. “The center already had a social media consultant who was building a presence for the center, and that really helped me establish this program with a really strong media focus,” explains project coordinator Leah Howell.
Howell uses Facebook and other channels to publicize the groups that take the training.
ABC House got an early boost after the mayor of Brownsville, who is active in a number of community groups, participated in its first training. “We got connected with the mayor, which was very valuable,” Ross says. “It’s harder in rural areas to get people together for something like this, but with the mayor’s help, we were able to set a goal with Brownsville and Halsey for 5% of their adults, which is about 100 people, to get trained.
“One of the things I’ve observed is that communities like challenges, and they like very clear number goals to meet.”
In Cottage Grove, the South Lane Family Relief Nursery has trained about 250 people, including an outdoor session on the McKenzie River for nearly 100 members of the Bikers Against Child Abuse organization.
“The interesting part was being able to see the difference in knowledge of the participants,” says Crystal Morrison, program manager for the organization. “Some just started and some had been involved for a while. ... They were all thankful for the information, especially the survivor stories.”
The Protect Our Children program also includes a sturdy evaluation component, with pre- and post-training surveys and a follow-up study that measures participant knowledge. About halfway through the grant period, 7,400 people have been trained. “We’re gaining momentum toward our goal of 20,000,” Beattie says.
As far as Beattie is concerned, the program is already a success. In Jackson County, a mother of three attended the training, which helped her understand some of her children’s recent behaviors — difficulties sleeping, regression in potty training, irritability and physical aggression increasing between siblings.
She told a therapist at the Children’s Advocacy Center that the class discussions helped her figure out a plan to help keep her children safe. She had a family friend pick up the children unexpectedly from the relative who had been caring for them, an action that provided her with the information she needed to call the police and protect her children.
“This mom just had no idea. And when, after the training, she recognized the signs, she took a real aggressive step and had someone just show up — and that is what we teach,” says Howell of the Children’s Advocacy Center.
“Every penny we spend on this program, is well spent because of this one situation,” Beattie says, “and there are probably many times this has happened that we don’t even know about. The ripple effect is just incredible.”