We're always shocked and saddened to hear that a young child or teenager has been sexually abused, and the recently reported alleged incidents at a Columbia climbing gym are no exception. But the sexual abuse of children is more common than you may think.
Here are some shocking numbers:
Ninety-three percent of children who are sexually abused knew, trusted or loved their attackers.
Sixty-seven percent of sexual assault victims are under 18, 34 percent are under age 12 and 14 percent are under age 6.
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
Forty-five percent of pregnant teens report a history of child sexual abuse.
One in five children is sexually solicited while online.
Friend, teacher, father, coach
Child molesters are often outgoing, likeable and seem sincere and honest.
"A double life is prevalent among all types of sex offenders," clinical psychologist and lecturer Anna Salter says in her book, "Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children."
"The front that offenders typically offer to the outside world is usually a 'good person,' someone who the community believes has a good character and would never do such a thing,"
Research also shows that child molestation rarely occurs suddenly. Molesters choose their victims. Especially vulnerable are children who are "perceived to be pretty, 'provocatively' dressed, young or small," The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence says.
With a victim in mind, the molester wins the child's friendship and trust and manipulates him or her into sexual activities.
Protecting your children
The most important thing you can do to protect your children is to learn about child sexual abuse and reduce risks. Understand that most abusers know their victims and have gained the trust and affection of both the child and the family. Be mindful when allowing your children to be alone with adults. Monitor their Internet use.
It's also important to talk openly with them. Teach them about their bodies and appropriate touching. And talk to them about the adults in their lives.
Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, but physical reactions, like chronic stomach pain and headaches, are. Emotional and behavioral signs to watch for include: too-perfect behavior, nightmares, sleep problems, anger, depression, withdrawal, fear, excessive crying, regressing to childlike behavior and age-inappropriate sexual behavior and language.
What to do
If a child tells you he or she has been sexually abused, believe the child. It's a myth that children lie or embellish stories of sexual abuse. Very few reported incidents are false.
If you suspect that your child has been sexually abused, trust your instincts and remain calm. Overreacting won't help the child and could make things worse.
Offer support and let the child know you believe and love him or her and are proud of her or him for telling you. But don't ask leading questions about the details or investigate yourself. Instead, report the abuse to Child Protective Services, the Child Advocacy Center and/or the police.
In Howard County, Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland provides child abuse and sexual assault treatment services, including individual, family and group counseling. There is also a parent support group every Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 pm. All concerned parents are welcome but must call to request a space.
Family and Chidren's Services trainers are available to talk with groups about signs of abuse and what to do if you suspect abuse.
For information about counseling and the parent support group, call 410-997-3557, ext. 229. To schedule a training session, call 410-997-3557, ext. 235.
Cheryl Ladota is assistant executive director at Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland. She is a licensed certified social worker.