Educators and child advocates say the best way to protect children is to educate them and their parents about sexual abuse, how to recognize it, avoid it and stop it.
Regardless of how comprehensive a state’s sex offender registry is, experts say they worry that parents may draw a false sense of security, thinking that their kids will be safe if they avoid the offenders listed.
Educators and child advocates say the best way to protect children is to educate them and their parents about sexual abuse - how to recognize it, avoid it, and stop it.
But experts say Massachusetts schools are having a tougher time funding and finding time for the programs - putting more of the onus on parents and community groups.
The state doesn’t have any requirements for teaching kids about personal safety.
“It’s really up to districts what they’re able to teach,” said Heidi Guarino, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
Suzin Bartley, executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund, said the quality of such programs in Massachusetts schools “is all over the map.”
The Children’s Trust Fund and other organizations sponsor anti-abuse education programs at a number of schools across the state and on the South Shore. But the state Department of Education does not have any requirements about teaching kids self-protection skills. While districts are supposed to teach a comprehensive health curriculum which could include those skills, health is not part of the state’s standardized testing regime.
“There’s lots and lots of pressure on schools to be focused on core subject areas and (some schools) are not comfortable about taking on something the kids aren’t going to be tested on later,” Bartley said.
So her organization often works with parochial schools, child care centers and after-school programs. In 2002, as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was reeling from the priest sex abuse scandal, it began working with the Children’s Trust Fund to bring Teaching About Touching, a well-known national program, into the area’s Catholic schools. The curriculum is also used in Plymouth and some other South Shore public schools.
Bartley and other educators said an effective program teaches kids skills they can use whether they’re being groomed for abuse by someone they know or approached by a stranger in a park.
While the latter scenario may grab headlines, the former is much more common. Studies show the vast majority of sexual assaults against children are committed by people the child or their families know and trust - as few as 10 percent are committed by strangers, according to one study. And most cases go unreported, a chief reason education and outreach is seen as vital.
Joan Cole Duffell, director of partnership development for the Committee for Children - the Seattle-based non-profit that developed “Teaching About Touching,” said research has shown that the most effective curriculum introduce kids to the skills they need over multiple lessons.
“What works is multiple lessons over a period of time, as opposed to one-shot presentations where kids get a show or a speaker or a presentation, particularly with younger kids,” she said.
Equally important, educators said, is training parents and teachers how to look for signs of abuse and ensuring their children or students know it’s safe to tell if someone is hurting them or making them uncomfortable.
The Teaching About Touching program includes a parent workshop, as does the Child Assault Prevention Program taught by trainers from New Hope Inc. an Attleboro-based domestic violence and sexual assault group.
That program, used in the Sharon schools, involves a once-a-year workshop for students, but also includes a parents’ night in which trainers talk to parents about how to recognize potential abusers and how to teach their kids to avoid or report abuse.
Nicole Correia, coordinator of community services for New Hope, said presenters encourage parents to teach their kids the correct words for their body parts, rather than using cutsie language that can be confusing and make it difficult for children to report something that happens to them.
“If they don’t have the correct terminology, a child may come up and say ëso and so wants to share my cookies’ and a parent may not understand,” she said.
Correia said that many parents are uncomfortable broaching the subject with their children, and she said workshops can give them tools for bringing it up in a neutral way.
Bartley said it’s important for parents to try to get over their discomfort.
“To be very honest, it makes us all uncomfortable; we don’t want to think it’s happening in our community or our family, and unfortunately that’s what pedophiles bank on,” she said.
“This is not like rape, this is a seduction. Pedophiles slowly groom children while at the same time they are monitoring the adults in that child’s life,” she added. “We need to train adults to get over their discomfort so they do notice.”
Educators said the best programs have an interactive component, in which children can use skills they’ve watched in role-playing games. Programs often include time afterward in which children can ask questions. Occasionally, educators said, children report abuse after participating in a workshop.
Julie Jette of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.