BERLIN – The Darkness to Light program, which aims to educate adults on prevention of, and sensitive response to, the sexual abuse of minors, recently gave a seminar to a room full of school councilors and volunteers.
The seminar was held in the Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services building in Berlin and was hosted by program facilitator Donna Leffew.
Leffew, clinical director at the Life Crisis Center in Salisbury, is the only Darkness to Light facilitator on the Eastern Shore.
The goal of the presentation was to help make those who attended “stewards of children.” A seven-step plan for protecting children from sexual abuse made up the core of the assembly.
“The old system was based on good touch and bad touch, which was fine, but put responsibility on the children to come to an adult. Darkness to Light shifts the responsibility back to the adult,” said Leffew.
Over the course of a two-hour instructional video, the seven steps were outlined in detail.
The first step is for adults to “learn the facts and understand the risks.” The video presented a lot of statistics, perhaps the most shocking of which was the estimated occurrence of sexual assaults. One in six boys and one in four girls will be sexually abused before their 18th birthdays. However, Leffew said that even those high statistics might be off
“I’d say one in six is a conservative number,” said Leffew.
Theresa Gabbard, a councilor representing Most Blessed Sacrament, a local Catholic school, agreed.
“Those are just the numbers that get reported,” she said. “Think of how many go unreported.”
One of the biggest things the video stresses is the danger the Internet presents if left unmonitored around minors. According to Darkness to Light, one in five children is sexually solicited while browsing the web.
Finally, one of the saddest pieces of information provided concerns just who typical child abusers are. Roughly 90 percent of minor sexual abuse involves someone the child knows, making the strangers in the park a less likely threat than someone familiar in the community. Even worse, between 30 and 40 percent of cases list a family member as the abuser.
The second step is “minimize opportunity.” More than 80 percent of child sexual abuse occurs in what the video called a “one child and one adult situation.” The key to this step is to eliminate times when an adult would be alone with a child.
Teachers are told to keep doors open if meeting with a student after school and parents are asked to set a good example by not being alone with a child that isn’t their own in private.
Leffew acknowledged that this could be a difficult topic, as a parent might come off as suspicious if they never allowed their child to meet in private with another adult, especially if that adult was an uncle or aunt or other member of the family.
“It’s hard to talk about in a family situation,” she said.
Leffew’s advice was to be as polite as possible, but make it clear that the policy regarding the child is that whenever they are alone with an adult, it should be in a public place.
The third step for protecting children is “talk about it.” Leffew pointed out that communication is perhaps the most important part of protecting a child. Education and understanding are key.
According to Leffew, adults have to make sure to remain calm if a child tells them about being abused. Any anger or negative emotion the adult may display, even if it’s directed at the abuser, might scare the child.
Being able to discuss the specifics of one’s body is also important to a child, otherwise they might not be sure of what is or isn’t wrong or how to talk about it.
Step four is “stay alert.” The signs of sexual abuse are incredibly varied and sometimes almost contradictory. Depression, unexplained anger and sexual language are often indicators of abuse. However, many children attempt to avoid notice by acting as perfectly as they can. Leffew explained that it is most often a dramatic change in behavior, not just the behavior itself that might signify sexual abuse.
“Make a plan” is step five. In Worcester County, children who suffer sexual abuse have the Cricket Center available to help. It is a child advocacy organization that attempts to minimize the traumatic impact of having to come forward as a minor who’s been sexually abused by keeping the process discreet and sympathetic.
Leffew stresses that adults have a responsibility to listen to a child who comes to them and admits abuse and to report said abuse to the authorities. The burden is even heavier on those whose jobs require them to be in contact with children, as all 50 states have a mandatory requirement to report any suspicion of child abuse.
Step six is “act on suspicions.” In the unfortunate case that someone trained by Darkness to Light ever does learn of abuse, they shouldn’t hesitate to act on their previously formed plan.
The final step is “get involved.” Those who attended the Darkness to Light seminar were asked if they would implement what they’ve learned in their interactions with children. The response was a collective “yes.”