Child sexual abuse is first and foremost, a health problem – not just an issue for social service departments, child abuse organizations or law enforcement agencies. The overwhelming impact of child sexual abuse on health makes it just as critical to the healthcare industry as lifestyle factors, such as smoking or obesity.
Many people are surprised to learn how many children are sexually abused. This is primarily because so many victims do not disclose their abuse to anyone, even as adults. Research shows between 10 to 20 percent of children are sexually abused; 75 percent of these victims are traumatized by the experience. This trauma increases the likelihood of subsequent behavioral and health problems. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control:
Adult women who were sexually abused as children are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression and attempt suicide then their non-abused peers.
Child sexual abuse survivors are more than twice as likely to have a substance abuse/dependence problem. Substance abuse causes and complicates many serious medical conditions.
Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are 30 percent more likely to have a serious medical condition such as diabetes, cancer, heart problems, stroke or hypertension. It is theorized that those who have a history of child sexual abuse are more likely to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, resulting in increased risk for serious medical conditions.
The economic impact of child sexual abuse in our country is $35 billion annually. Over $31 billion of this is attributed to the long-term quality-of-life and health consequences of abuse.
Prevention in Health care
The healthcare industry knows that prevention is more effective and less expensive than treating medical conditions. Millions of dollars have gone into prevention programs that avert heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension and obesity. This approach to prevention education can be applied to child sexual abuse prevention as well. We educate adults in how to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, just as we would teach a family to prepare and eat a heart-healthy diet.
There is a research-based, standardized, adult-focused child sexual abuse prevention education program that can teach adults how to decrease risk factors and increase protective behaviors to prevent child sexual abuse. The Darkness to Light Stewards of Children child sexual abuse prevention training is a two-hour prevention education program. It is led by a trained facilitator, and includes video-based instruction from survivors and experts, as well as a workbook, outlining simple techniques to better protect children and backed by exhaustive research. Professional continuing education credits are available for those who take the course, but any adult who is responsible for children would benefit from this training. It can help anyone better protect the children in their circle of care. It can also help adults identify children who may be abused and help them to disclose and seek assistance. The physical and emotional conditions that create risk for child sexual abuse are well established through research and it is possible for adults to reduce risk by avoiding these situations and improving care-giving techniques. These common sense changes are relatively simple and easy to adopt, but until going through this training, most adults are unaware that they are putting children in their care in danger. This is why education for adults is key to prevention. Those who receive the Stewards of Children training are better equipped to prevent, recognize and respond to child sexual abuse.
Additionally, this prevention education program should be part of the regular training provided at all of the youth serving organizations within our community – schools, child care centers, after school programs, athletic organizations and faith communities. The training includes guidelines for child and youth-serving organizations to conduct more rigorous screenings of employees, develop codes of conduct and implement and enforce child protection policies. If all of the adults in our community who work with and serve our children have this training implement child protection policies we can greatly reduce this health risk resulting in healthier children and reducing their risk for so many other mental and physical health problems later in life.
The cost of this education program is relatively low: just $15 per person. There are authorized facilitators in the Stewards of Children training program here in our community. If you would like to take this training or have it brought to the organization that serves your children, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.georgiacenterforchildadvocacy.org for more information.
Carol Neal Rossi is the regional prevention coordinator for the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy. She has worked in child abuse prevention for 20 years and is the former director of Prevent Child Abuse Georgia.