Julia Strehlow is the director of education, prevention, and policy for Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, one of the frontline responders to reports of child sexual abuse in the city. The Center also responds to physical abuse, witness to violence, and other serious maltreatment. ChicagoCAC is the city’s only not-for-profit organization that coordinates the efforts of child protection staff, law enforcement professionals, family advocates, medical experts, and mental health clinicians under one roof.
Children’s Advocacy Centers across the country continue our vital operations, even as this pandemic of the novel coronavirus impacts every facet of our communities. We are increasingly concerned about children who are isolated in homes with abusive parents, caregivers, siblings, or other family friends and have no advocates or supportive adults to step in and help.
Research indicates that child sexual abuse thrives in isolation. As our necessary, long-term social distancing continues, children are away from the social services they normally lean on for support, including schools. Right now, vulnerable children are not spending time with mandated reporters, such as teachers or staff from youth-serving organizations, and may have no one to speak up for them as abuse continues. The need for child sexual abuse investigations will undoubtedly grow in the coming weeks. And CACs are, and will continue to be, an essential safety net regardless of what unfolds over the next few months.
But abuse is not inevitable. We can take action now to prevent child sexual abuse and intervene in concerning situations. Here are a few prevention tips for reducing the risk for child sexual abuse in a household during this time of shared spaces, increased anxiety due to an unknown future, and reduced options for childcare.
Communication: The most important thing adults can do to reduce the risk of sexual abuse for children is to maintain open lines of communication and encourage children to come to them at any time with concerns about others’ behavior, feelings of discomfort in the home, or sexual abuse. Adults must believe children. Use this extra time at home to discuss your openness and model assertive communication about boundaries all the time.
Schedule: Set a daily schedule and stick to it so that everyone knows what to expect and can anticipate what’s coming next. This consistency keeps all adults in the household accountable for their role throughout the day. It provides safety and comfort to kids who are vulnerable to abuse. And it allows anyone who might be at risk of causing harm to be aware that you are paying attention and leaving no room for inappropriate behavior.
Household safety rules: Set new rules or reinforce existing ones for boundaries and privacy around the house, such as one person in the bathroom at a time, or expectations that everyone is keeping their hands to themselves.
Online safety rules: Now more than ever, children are spending time online. It’s essential to have regular prevention conversations at an age-appropriate level.
Childcare: With schools and many daycares closed, reliable childcare is hard to come by! We recommend caution in allowing children to be cared for by just anyone, even in a pinch.
As always, it is our responsibility as adults to prevent child sexual abuse and intervene in concerning situations.
Visit Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center’s website for more information about prevention strategies. v
Have a strong opinion or perspective you’d like to share? We invite you to send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.