According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 out of 5 children will experience some form of abuse or neglect before their 18th birthday. “Something that’s hard for us just as a general society to realize is that abuse is everywhere,” says Debra Schneider, the director of Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS Center) at Children’s of Alabama. “It’s not just in poverty-stricken areas, it’s not just the homeless. It can hit any socioeconomic factor.”
Established in 1995, CHIPS Center provides forensic medical evaluations, social work support services, counseling services, and prevention education services. The CHIPS staff is a team of specially trained licensed professional counselors, doctors, licensed social workers, and sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) who offer support to children who have experienced suspected abuse and their families.
In recognition of April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, we talked to the experts at CHIPS for advice on what parents and guardians can do to make sure their children are protected and safe — both in April and always.
Choose safe childcare.
When choosing a childcare facility, there are several questions parents and guardians should consider, Debra says. “The main thing is supervision. Does the childcare facility have access for cameras for the family to watch live or review? Are there multiple teachers in the room so that at least there’s some other adult in there who’s observing what’s happening? And if there are doors in the rooms, there should be windows in the doors so anybody walking by could glance in.”
The facility should also be approved by the Department of Human Resources, and the workers should be properly trained in child development and have experience working with children with special needs, Debra adds.
Even a babysitter needs a basic understanding of children’s behavior. “If you’re hiring an 18-year-old who’s never been around kids, they might think a baby pulling your hair is being mean when that’s just a normal part of child development,” Debra says.
Stay vigilant, even around family.
As most schools and daycare facilities have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children will mostly be around family and family friends in the coming weeks or months. Parents and guardians must still be vigilant. “Ninety percent of the time a child is sexually abused by someone that they know,” Debra says. “If a parent’s gut tells them something is not right with this family member or family friend, they’re probably right.”
If there are rumors about a family member abusing children, or if you’ve been abused by a particular family member, never leave your child alone with this person. Debra says that though this may seem obvious, “A lot of times when a child is a victim, they think they’re the only victim. So, adults have left their children with someone who has abused them. And now this generational abuse is continuing.”
Keep your child safe online.
With social distancing being necessary to help slow the spread of COVID-19, your child may be spending even more time online. Debra recommends keeping your child’s computer or gaming device in a common area of the house instead of the child’s bedroom. “If you’re paying for their phone, internet, and devices, you have the right to access those devices and see what they’re doing,” she says. “Monitor the sites they’re going to, and put parental safety blocks on their computers.”
Without proper supervision, children could be exposed to pornography or may be manipulated by someone they’re communicating with online. “You could have a 13-year-old boy and they think they’re gaming with another 13-year-old boy, and it could actually be a 42-year-old man,” Debra says. “The children don’t understand how much information they give out without realizing it – their age, where they go to school, when they’re home alone.”
Look for warning signs.
The number of children abused each year could be even higher than statistics show because not all children report their abuse. “Boys are known to under-report because they’re expected to be tough and macho,” Debra says.
So, parents and guardians must look for signs. A sudden shift in your child’s behavior is worth noting. Has your once-outgoing child become withdrawn? Has your child become more aggressive? Bedwetting can be another sign. “Or they may have a new onset of fears about a place or person or be afraid to go to sleep,” Debra says.
For physical abuse, keep your eye out for any suspicious marks or bruises. Children who start talking about sexualized topics or exhibiting sexualized behavior may be victims of sexual abuse.
Also, take note if they’re having trouble sitting or complaining of pain. “The problem is all those things I just listed could be all sorts of other things, too,” Debra says. “So, what we try to stress is to have open communication with children. Ask open-ended questions such as ‘Tell me something you enjoyed about today’ or Tell me something you wish hadn’t happened today.’”
If you suspect a child in your life is being abused, contact your local Department of Human Resources. “They can call CHIPS if they have general questions, but we are mandated reporters of suspected abuse,” Debra explains. “So, if we have enough information and we suspect it we would have to report it.”
If a child is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
Be proactive and develop a safety plan with your child.
“Just like we teach them how to cross the street, to put their seatbelts on, to wear a bike helmet, let them know it’s OK to say ‘no’ to someone,” Debra says. “Teach them that their body is special and that they are special, and no one should be harming them or taking advantage of them, even if they’re in an authority position.”
Children should be taught to say no, get away, and tell a trusted adult. However, they should also be told that if they can’t get away or if they don’t immediately tell what happened, they are not at fault. “It’s never their fault,” Debra says.
Furthermore, children need to understand that when they do reveal that they’ve been abused and people get upset, they’re not to blame for that either. “Mom might cry, Daddy might start yelling, but they need to understand they’re not causing that reaction,” Debra explains.
Parents and guardians must understand what their child could be facing. Because perpetrators often tell children that the abusive acts should be kept secret, teach your child the difference between secrets and surprises. “We try to educate children in the community that secrets are not good things,” Debra says.
Not telling Daddy about his birthday gift is a surprise, not a secret. “A surprise will eventually be known by everyone,” Debra explains.
Perpetrators may use bait, bribes or tricks to get close to children and to keep them quiet. Young kids may be baited with candy or toys. For older kids, the alleged abuser may promise to buy them something expensive or may convince them their family doesn’t love them.
To keep a child from reporting abuse, the abuser may blackmail children who’ve sent inappropriate photos of themselves online or may even threaten to hurt a family member or family pet.
Early on, however, perpetrators will work hard to gain the trust of both the child and the family. “Most of the time it’s someone that they know, so they’re going to know what this child is interested in, and they also groom the guardians because they want to fit in and not raise suspicion,” Debra explains. “It’s a mind game.”
While it’s important for parents and guardians to educate children about abuse, Debra says that, ultimately, “Prevention of abuse is on the adults. It’s not the children’s responsibility.”
To learn more about child abuse prevention, visit the CHIPS Center website at childrensal.org/CHIPS.
This article is sponsored by Children’s of Alabama.