“I trust you. I believe what you are saying,” said Nia Wassink, offering advice for parents who find themselves trying to talk to a child about a possible sexual assault.
Wassink is the business development director and leads the education program for Blue Sky Bridge Child and Family Advocacy Center in Boulder. The organization provides counselors and conducts forensic interviews of children who may have suffered sexual abuse.
Parents can employ many tactics when faced with the possibility that a child has been abused, but believing and supporting the child is key in the beginning.
Longmont police Detective Stacey Graham said parents who find themselves confronted with the possibility that their child has suffered sexual abuse should react carefully, so the child feels supported and isn’t frightened into withdrawing.
“When you approach your kids and talk to them, it should be without shame or blame for any of the acts that may have been perpetrated on them,” Graham said.
While it may be difficult, she said, parents shouldn’t ask many questions because they could be leading or even plant ideas in a child’s head. Law enforcement and the counselors at Blue Sky Bridge will be able to ask the right types of questions that may reveal information that can be used in court, she said.
Parents may also use language for anatomy that can confuse an investigation later and could even cause reasonable doubt in a court case.”
“If you call it a ‘cookie’ we have to figure out if a ‘cookie’ is a private part or if a cookie is indeed a cookie,” Graham said. “At least use ‘private parts’ and explain to kids that those are the parts covered by bathing suits,'” she said.
Parents should try to hide any shock or horror if a child tries to talk about an assault, she said, because it can scare the child and many kids don’t want to upset their parents.
Signs a child may have suffered abuse can include bed wetting, oversexual behavior that is beyond the child’s age or expected knowledge, trouble sleeping, nightmares or night terrors, lack of trust in others, sudden behavior changes, self-esteem issues, or displaying sexual acts.
Wassink and police officials hope local parents will take the opportunity to talk to children about sexual assault in light of the recent arrest and charging of a man accused of having a relationship with a 13-year-old girl. Sexual assault of children also has been in the news recently as investigators have learned of cases involving high profile college coaches.
Investigators believe Travis Bowden, 24, and the girl have had a sexual relationship since August, according to Longmont police Cmdr. Jeff Satur. Bowden worked as a substitute janitor for the St. Vrain Valley School District, which prompted the district to reach out to parents asking that they talk to their children.
Police plan to send a second letter next week, even though Bowden had little opportunity to interact with kids in the schools. Police said he met the young teenager in his neighborhood on the 1700 block of Cambridge Drive.
“One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they are 18,” Wassink said. Even if a child did not know or interact with Bowden, many other possible offenders are out there, she said.
Satur said that children who are abused typically know perpetrators through schools, programs, families or neighborhoods.
“There are people in our community who will take advantage of those friendships,” Satur said.
Children “are more likely to be involved in something from somebody that you know, so it is very important to have those conversations,” he said.
Using a case like Bowden’s could be a good way to bring up the topic.
Parents could say, “‘You might find yourself in a position like this and if you ever are, please talk to us,'” Satur suggested.
As for the Bowden case, Satur said, no other potential victims have come forward and Bowden is not currently facing any investigation beyond the one girl police have identified.
“I would be extremely naive to say there are probably no others,” he said.
Talking to your children about sexual abuse
Blue Sky Bridge Tips for Parents
Offenders target children in at-risk youth programs because family stress and under-involved caregivers provide an avenue to abuse children without detection. Parents who are involved, ask questions, and show up to activities make their children less desirable targets by merely making their presence known. This is because involved caregivers are more likely to notice behavior changes and to take note of the interactions between other adults and their kids.
Showing up unannounced to any activity that your child is involved in, whether it is pee-wee football or a friend’s sleep over, gives you a lot of information about the level of supervision happening when you’re not around. This ensures that adults or other peers are not having access to your child in such a way that prevents the behavior from being monitored by others.
Reaching out to other parents whose children have attended the same programs or have a history with the staff is another way to obtain information about the people involved. Additionally, it motivates other parents to ask questions and talk to their kids about their experience within a specific program. Networking with caregivers also creates an opportunity to partner with each other when talking to your kids about personal safety.
Talk about it
Conversations about safe touch, unsafe touch, private parts and body safety in general should be happening often and should include components related to the child’s developmental age. Concepts such as curiosity, self-exploration, manipulation and secret-keeping should accompany any conversation around touch.
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.