I bring a heavy heart to writing this, my annual column on sexual abuse in childhood.
Some of you may recall I started writing about my own experience three years ago when I decided to become part of an effort to increase awareness about the prevalence and consequences of sexual abuse in childhood.
Sadly, what I imagined would become a community movement to protect children turned to silence, an all too common outcome for children.
One in five children are sexually abused by the time they reach 18 years of age; one in five girls and one in six boys. The statistics are shocking in themselves until we are more shocked to learn the incidence is under reported. Silence and abetting were all too common in the day.
One woman related her story of telling her mother of the sexual groping by an adult male neighbor. Her mother made her apologize to the man in effect signing a permission slip for him to continue.
Hers is not the only story of tolerance and apologies. Think of the men who have come forward to finally tell their story of sexual abuse by revered priests. How many children were not believed.
We need to understand that to this day many children aren’t asked and/or aren’t believed? Does anyone ask a child in a summer camps, gymnastics programs, scouting programs, detention centers or wandering homeless if the child has been touched inappropriately?
Guess not, because each year brings yet another story of sexual abuse practices on children that’s been going on for years. Most revelations take the courage of an adult who was a child victim of sexual abuse to come forward and break the silence and, with any available compassion, expose and break the pattern.
2019 not an exception
This past year’s most memorable and notorious example was the concluding act of imprisonment of Jeffrey Epstein who got away with chronic exploitation of teenage girls who when caught years ago received a conviction in Florida and a pain-free sentence.
Later, Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown began a relentless investigation that ultimately exposed ongoing exploitation, the involvement of well-known men and enablers that surrounded him. Brown gained the trust and confidence of now adult women who were caught up in and used as objects of sexual gratification by men who most likely didn’t remember their names.
Less well known is the recent allegation of three decades of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children at the New Hampshire state-run youth detention center. A class action suit brought forth on behalf of 36 adults after one victim now an adult came forward with information that led to charging 2 former counselors with raping him as a teenager.
Thirty years is about the same amount of time that Larry Nassar, who in his role as the gymnastic doctor, wantonly abused young girls with dreams of exceling in gymnastics.
Two cases with 30-year histories. We can assume the gymnasts were in environments supporting their goals and the kids in detention were not. I suppose we could say some threw away the key once the children were placed in detention, but nothing like that explains the denial or willful ignorance of those that aided and abetted both situations.
The silence that surrounds child sexual abuse is stunning and it continues today in both direct and insidious ways. Last February I wrote about my hope for the return of healthy sex education to our schools when I spoke with the Assistant Superintendent of Sequim Schools, Jennifer Maughan.
As the year went, she was honest in telling me that sexual health education would not be part of the curriculum until the Washington State Legislature passed a law mandating it.
Well, the Senate did and the House didn’t in 2019. Parents and others, many opposed, came forward to testify at the bill’s hearing by the House Education Committee. A majority of House members were persuaded to vote against healthy sexual education.
Listening to parents
Bills have surfaced in the 2020 session of our legislature. The Senate passed a bill mandating healthy sexual education in schools and the House is processing HB 2148 on same. An amended bill is out of the House Education Committee and has gone to the Appropriations Committee.
I spent nearly an hour listening to portions of the bill presentation by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to the House Education Committee. Anyone can access the video online (go to app.leg.wa.gov/billinfo and enter “HB2148” on bill search).
What I learned was the OSPI process included a diverse committee of interests and the gathering of extensive data and input.
I gathered OSPI’s committee heard what was concerning parents the most which seemed to match what I understand was a primary concern of Sequim parents. Many opponents particularly opposed the K-3 curricula which contained what they felt was too much, too soon.
I am certain there were opposing parents who felt any information was too much and/or ought to come only through family.
But I have the impression from what I heard that many parents think K-3 healthy sex education should occur but be general and focused on healthy friendships and personal space to include teaching that inappropriate touching isn’t right and the child should tell a parent or supportive adult. There was support for providing additional age-appropriate detail as children age.
Locked into the legislation moving forward is providing for local control through elected school boards and parental opt-out of some or all sex education.
If only the children could talk …
… and be heard. Our role as parents, grandparents and responsible adults is to accept the reality that children are prey, typically to someone they know.
It is our job to be sure children have the tools, understanding and support to recognize and report in a shame-free environment surrounded by a network of safety.
Break the silence; break the pattern. Childhood sexual abuse is as wrong for 30 seconds to one child as it is for 30 years to hundreds of children.
Bertha Cooper, featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper’s book “Women, We’re Only Old Once” is due out this summer. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim over 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.