A program that educates adults in rural Oregon and California about child-sexual abuse is increasing the likelihood that victims will get the help and protection they need, according to a new report issued by one of the program’s funders.
The report, made in collaboration with University of Oregon and the Ford Family Foundation, found that adult participants in the Protect Our Children training are three times more likely to know the signs of sexual abuse in children and five times more likely to know how to prevent abuse in their community after taking the training.
Protect Our Children participants also reported change in their communities’ norms surrounding conversations about abuse. In the United States, reluctance to discuss the topic creates what the report calls a “culture of silence” that isolates survivors of child sexual abuse, despite the likelihood that they are surrounded by others with similar experience. Of the 10,748 program participants who were surveyed for the report, a third said they were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
“Historically, the topic of sex is taboo, and it’s hard to talk about,” said Mary Ratliff, Protect Our Children project director, in a Daily Yonder interview. “The way we talk about child sexual abuse sometimes can inhibit kids from disclosure.”
This culture of silence makes more difficult for children to report or identify abuse when it does happen to them, said Ratliff, and has made it easy for adults to ignore or mishandle the signs of abuse in children. This culture is especially prevalent in rural areas, where a “not in my town” attitude – the perception that small towns are safer – can prevent people from reporting or discussing abuse, according to the nonprofit ValorUS. Fear of gossip and a lack of adequate health services can also discourage rural survivors from reporting abuse.
The goal of the Protect Our Children training is to normalize conversations about sex and child sexual abuse. Program facilitators encourage adults to use direct language when referring to body parts (for example: say “vagina” and “penis” instead of indirect phrases like “private parts” or “down there”) and incorporate routines that promote consent, like asking a child if they can be hugged instead of forcing that physical contact.
These small changes in language, both verbal and nonverbal, can go a long way in promoting bodily autonomy and reducing shame and confusion around bodies and sex, according to the Protect Our Children curriculum.
The training also encourages conversations among adults regarding child sexual abuse, like asking fellow parents what their closed-door policies are when their child’s friends are over.
“I raised my kids in Douglas County [Oregon], and when one of my kids would go to a sleepover, I would ask about [safety rules] around guns – because we all had guns! – and nobody would bat an eye when you ask that question,” Ratliff said. “But, we don’t ask who else is in the house that my child is spending the night in.”
Normalizing those conversations is a key way adults can decrease child sexual abuse, which is usually caused by someone the child already knows, not a stranger, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Some rural participants have been more hesitant to get behind the training that encourages adults to talk more directly about sex and bodies with children, according to Ratliff. But most people welcome it. “Of course there’s pushback, but not so often because we set the stage for a frank, safe conversation,” Ratliff said.
Program facilitators don’t shame participants for talking about bodies with children in a different way than what is suggested in the training. Instead, the training is meant to be an additional tool for adults in the ongoing learning process designed to address and eventually mitigate child sexual abuse.
The Protect Our Children curriculum was developed by the national organization Darkness to Light and is implemented at 17 different sites in Oregon and Siskiyou County, California, through funding provided by the Ford Family Foundation. The Ford Family Foundation provides grants to charities and agencies benefitting rural communities in both regions.
As Protect Our Children enters its eighth year in operation in Oregon and California, Ratliff said they’re looking to expand the training to more counties in Oregon.
While Oregon has a law that requires child sexual abuse prevention programs to be taught in public schools, nothing exists for adults, even though the program emphasizes that the duty to protect children from sexual abuse lies with adults, not the child.
“There are tools for kids, but we want to make sure that we instill that responsibility in adults, too,” Ratliff said. “We have to have these conversations and social norms changes and policy changes because that’s what’s going to protect kids everywhere and all the time.”