Sunday, November 15, 2015

Stewards Of Children: A Review Of Darkness To Light's Abuse Prevention Training

This is a review of the "Stewards of Children" child sex abuse prevention training course offered by Darkness to Light. They had offered me a free course due to a dialogue I started with them about one aspect of the training- educating children. I am writing this as I am taking the training.

The Introduction

The training starts with two separate disclaimers, much like this blog has, for survivors of child sex abuse. A great place to start, although putting text on a screen and having the audio playing someone reading said text is a little off-putting. While obviously aimed at educators, their statement towards potential abusers is completely inadequate because the message is 'You should not, because it is harmful'. Someone at risk for child sex abuse will not hear that message, what they will hear is 'You are broken and you need fixing'. What they must hear instead is, 'You can live a life where this is not a big deal, where you can manage this'. The overall content of the videos and content is not of course aimed at a potential abuser, but if a potential abuser views them, they will not likely respond well to them.

Their stated purpose- a world free of child sex abuse- is much like my own. They introduce survivors: The first uses the word 'pedophile' to describe his abuser. I have discussed this in earlier posts, mainly the first item in my FAQ. This word will further alienate anyone who is struggling with pedophilia, because it equates their very real struggle- pedophilia- with acting out on their attractions.

The word 'pedophile' is loaded, and should only be used to describe someone attracted to children, never someone who has abused a child. There are better, less minimizing, and more accurate labels for them. I would never call myself a pedophile to refer to my crime, because it minimizes what I did to my victim. I would call what I did an act of child rape. I would refrain from using words like 'abuser' or 'molester' or 'rapist' because all of these words imply a state of being- I acted once, and I am committed to keeping it that way. So using a term that would define my entire being by a large mistake I made minimizes me as a human being. At the same time, what other words are out there?

Getting to the Point

The best part of sharing the victim's stories in the first segment is that you get to hear who the abusers are: People trusted by the community. Cousins, family friends, a firefighter, church leader, a father, and babysitters. Not strangers, thankfully: Not one of those stories was from a victim of stranger abuse. They then give essential facts about abuse: Examples in the news, how it makes us feel, who it impacts, how many it impacts (all of which have been covered before on this blog), and how we generally respond to news stories of those who have abused children. They give essentially what are impact statements: How the abuse impacted the victims, from the victim's point of view.

They also give a list of impacts on victims, and resources to access, which I will cover later. The interactive is a bit cheesy, but then I do not think I have taken any sort of interactive training that was not cheesy. They correctly identify the cause of child sex abuse as being about choice- ours, the abuser's, etc. They talk about getting support, upsetting the apple cart, and other barriers to reporting or otherwise making the 'right' choices.

Step One: Learn the Facts

How they start their first step is golden: "Child sex abuse thrives in an environment of denial and fear." They discuss the secrecy, and the impact on the victim's belief. They talk about the inability to break the spell of secrecy that is weaved by perpetrators, and the manipulative hold that abusers have over their victims and the other adults involved.

They go on to define child sex abuse as "any sexual act between an adult and a minor, or between two minors when one exerts power over the other." I disagree with this, because it leaves the loophole of denying the exertion of power to claim a mutual relationship- NAMBLA and other boy-love organizations exploit that loophole. They do go on to include non-contact actions, and they do discuss persuasion as being part of the definition of child abuse. For me, that still leaves the loophole- and from where I sit, there are none. Even if you have a child that is willing and not negatively impacted or does not feel coerced, it is still abuse.

They also discuss commercial exploitation, or prostitution. We might also refer to it as sex slavery. They also discuss child pornography and what that is- any image that focuses on a child's genitals, clothed or unclothed. Again, there is a huge emphasis on the impact on the victim. There is again a practical application of the information they present, and touch on the fact that 66% of all sex crime involves youth. They talk about the false illusion of stranger danger. They also talk about the fact that some women and young girls also perpetrate child sex abuse, not just men. They talk about the fact that 40% or more of children are abused by older children or youth. Unfortunately, they repeat the myth that abusers were usually abused.

Step Two: Minimize Opportunity

Of course, the biggest statistic is that 80% of child sex abuse happens in one-on-one situations. They talk about the grooming process, and flattering the victims. Unfortunately, there are abusers, like me, who are unaware of the grooming process. They talk about making things public and visible, making sure that any message sent to the child via digital technology is also presented to the parent. They talk about minimizing hotspots for alone time, like bathrooms, and the use of surveillance in or around some of these hotspots. They make a point to make things visible in these hotspots, like buses, shower rooms, bedrooms, camp cabins, etc.

They talk about transparency also, and making sure older children and younger children should be separate in these situations. They also talk about the internet being a hotspot for one-on-one time, and the presence of online predators, though I would add statistically, online predators are much more rare than the media makes them seem. Internet boundaries are great to talk about, but I think they need to be tempered with the reality that the internet is a daily part of life, and monitoring internet use by children can be challenging.

While there is technology to ease that burden, I think monitoring and being aware of a child's internet use can also be a violation of their privacy and their boundaries. There is also somewhat of a perception that those who have abused children in non-technology settings are prone to taking advantage of technology in future situations, but that is not automatic or typical. Typically, an abuser will have a set of patterns and what experts call a cycle by which they generally operate. It is atypical for most abusers to go outside that pattern.

They discuss screening out those who have already abused children by the use of references, interviews, prevention training, and background checks. Given the high potential for abusers to not be 'in the system', background checks can easily create a false sense of security. Discussing references and interviews is great, but the training already establishes that those who abuse children are typically trusted members of the community. So any of those four tools must be treated with caution. They talk about having a code of conduct, which is great because it sets a standard, and one of the boundaries they give is not having volunteer/employee contact with children outside the program, though that is an easy boundary to break.

Step Three: Talk About It

This is the step that is of primary concern to me, because it discusses how to educate children on the topic. Personally, I am of the opinion going into this section, that teaching boundaries, sex education, and other self-esteem and mental-health boosting interactions is great for children, but dismal in a conversation about child sex abuse. Again, they talk about the grooming process and who abusers use the lack of information to gain access to children's bodies. Abusers may not be aware of this process, and they may not single out a child specifically because of their lack of knowledge or awareness, or their lack of boundaries. For some, it may simply be enough for them to have seen the child naked and have the ability to spend time alone with them. That was true for me.

They again talk about the secrecy and the shame that children feel towards the abuse. They talk about the thinking that children use to justify keeping the abuse a secret, and the inability to overcome the fear of what will happen if they make the secret known. I remember the first time I abused my victim, because of how similar it was to my mother abusing me: Using personal hygiene as a front for having sexual contact. And afterward, I asked him... 'Do you think you should tell someone?' Not because I wanted him not to, but because I wanted to know what he thought about it. He said no. I asked why not, and he would not say anything more. It still baffles me that he would not tell me why he did not think he should tell anyone about what I had just done.

They talk about being attentive to what children say, and about the value of talking to children about sex and creating a relationship with the child so that they know they are cared for. They talk about the value of having specific conversations about sex and personal boundaries. Again, I agree, but not in the context of preventing child sex abuse. My victim had those conversations, and knew what good and bad touch were. And he chose, of his own free will, despite me asking why he did not want to tell anyone, to keep it a secret. Using specific terminology is also great, but again, not in the context of abuse prevention. While it can be helpful, I am very concerned that this sends the message, to us, society, and the victim, that it is the child's responsibility to inform an adult and stop abuse. It is an adult's responsibility, period, to stop abuse.

The interactive they give is a multiple choice, check all that apply question of: "Which of the following adult choices protect children from sexual abuse?" The options? Teaching children proper names for body parts (covered in the training, clearly click that), teaching children they can tell you anything without fear (again, covered, clearly click that), explaining what parts of the body others should not touch (again, covered, click it), teaching children to always obey adults (not covered, clearly avoid it), and teaching children not to share personal information on the internet (covered, click it). So, having paid attention, I got all of them correct. The problem I have is not with the options being correct, but with the question. None of those protect children. None of those create a concrete barrier to the child being safe. All of them will teach the child that their safety is their responsibility- and by implication, that it is their responsibility if they do not keep themselves safe.

The primary focus is on what the child knows and how this knowledge is going to prevent child sex abuse. And that, I have a serious problem with.

Step Four: Recognize the Signs

This is a rundown on the physical signs of child sex abuse, and the emotional and behavioral signs. Some might be more obvious, like bleeding, bruising or STD's, in private areas or the mouth. But most of them are not as obvious- these are the emotional and behavioral signs, like too perfect behavior, fear, withdrawal, anger, rebellion, and depression. The point being that if it is unexpected or unexplained, they are a red flag. They talk about acting out being a big sign of sex abuse, and that oppositional defiance disorder and ADHD being diagnosis that are often signs of sex abuse. The main point is that acting out is a sign that something is off. I was diagnosed with ADHD and I acted out a lot. My victim also frequently acted out a lot- he bit people, he grabbed people's genitals, would not do his homework, etc.

The checklist they include for concrete examples:
  • Nightmares (had those, as did my victim)
  • Bedwetting (had those, as did my victim)
  • Falling grades (had those, unsure of victim)
  • Cruelty to animals (had those, victim at times did as well)
  • Bullying and being bullied (both me and my victim were bullied)
  • Fire-setting (I did that, unsure of my victim, but he did enjoy explosions)
  • Running away (I did that once, and my victim often wanted to be alone)
  • Self-harm (I did this in certain forms, to the best of my knowledge my victim did not)
They also discuss masturbation, exposing in public, overachieving, perfectionism, playing doctor with younger children, knowing words or phrases that are not fitting of the child's age group, and similar things. 

Step Five: React Responsibly

In this section, they discuss the three reasons we must react to sex abuse: When there is a disclosure of abuse to us, when we discover it ourselves, and when we have reason to suspect that sex abuse is occurring. They talk about the reactions being to offer support, encouraging the child, and seeking professional help. I have discussed before about the value of therapy for potential abusers, and I would say there is just as much value for victims of child sex abuse. Finding the right therapist can be a challenge, and understanding what the therapist's credentials can be challenging, but Google it. Use the internet. 'How do I find a good therapist for child sex abuse' The internet can tell you anything you want to know, all you need to know is how to ask.

Supporting the victim and letting them know that you believe them, and that you will act on what you have told them is key. They must be supported. At the same time, I would add not to overreact. Let the child be the one to do the talking, and let the child inform what happened. Do not put words in their mouth, or ask leading questions. Get the details one step at a time- the focus is on them, not 'getting the bastard who did this'. Chances are, they may feel very strongly about that 'bastard' and may want to protect them. So letting your child talk about it, at their pace, is key.

I jumped the gun in the last paragraph, but the list they give for being supportive is:
  • Be supportive
  • Listen calmly
  • Don't overreact
  • Say, "I believe you. What happened is not your fault."
  • Praise the child for his or her courage and thank them for telling you
  • Encourage the child to talk, but don't ask leading questions about the details
  • Ask only open-ended questions like, "What happened next?"
  • Tell the child we will get the support we need
They also discuss the value in getting professional help- a therapist who has worked with sexual abuse victims. The 'help in your area' link on the side, while also being for potential abusers, can also be of great value to victims and their families. They talk about how to report it to law enforcement and to include details like name, age, address of those involved. They also talk about Children Advocacy Centers, such as Cornerstone where my victim was interviewed, as being great resources for victims and their families. They discuss what it means to discover abuse of having seen something and the obligation to report it so that the victim and their family gets help. The right thing, in this circumstance, is to notify the authorities. 

There is minimal discussion in the training about situations where the family and even the victim may not want charges filed, or to be interviewed, or otherwise have the situation reported to law enforcement. What I would say, as someone who has abused a child, is this: Report it anyway. I know that can sound harsh, but my experience with the legal justice system is that they care about the victim and their family. They get the option to make an impact statement in court, they have the option of pursuing a harsher sentence- but they can also do nothing. My experience in therapy is that my therapist, while having worked with victims and their families, also cares about me and my progress. All of the professionals I have worked with lead me to the conclusion that abuse should be reported to the police, period. They talk later about the fact that reporting means you are protected from retaliation, and that you are essentially saying, 'hey, this needs attention' to people who can investigate it. 

At the same time, there are laws that are not just and do not fit the crime. I have to register as a predatory offender for life as of right now. I think we will eventually realize the uselessness in having a registry open to the public, and the lack of impact it has on crime. So yes, there are injustices in the legal system and in therapy. But report it anyway. I have often wondered to myself, what would have happened if I had not tried to kill myself? What if I had not revealed anything, and gotten a lawyer? I probably could have avoided the legal trouble. But I do not regret my actions after the abuse came to light, even though they directly resulted in my criminal conviction. It meant that the victim got help. 

In talking about suspecting child sex abuse, they talk about setting healthy boundaries by identifying what they are doing that is not okay, asking them to stop, and moving on. I would reiterate what one therapist said: "What I've heard from people who abuse, often, is that all of the signs were there, but no one bothered to ask them about it." There was widespread discussion in my faith community that I like children, and what if I am a pedophile- someone attracted to children. But no one talked with me about it, and no one said anything to me, even while one leader in that community knew I was in fact a pedophile. 

Conclusion

The training recaps what the training covered, what everyone can do, and how those steps protect children. They give victims' stories of the value of forgiveness and moving on, which was very touching. Of course, they end off with touching images of the victims and their new families, and of songs. The idea, of course, being that of empowerment: You can do something to stop child sex abuse. I would reiterate that, even while I disagree with step three. They also give a list of resources, which I will review next. I think all in all, it is excellent training and great information for the average person, even if some of that information and how it is presented could use tweaking as I have outlined here. I would recommend this training to most organizations, with the caution that it does not accurately represent the issue of pedophilia and how that ties into (or rather how it usually does not tie into) child sexual abuse. It also does not reflect the reality of who the biggest risks to children are. What it does do is inform someone who knows absolutely nothing about the subject, and generates further discussion. 

Their Resources

The resources page accessible when you take the training is a great place to go for more information, but treat it with a degree of caution: Some statements are not accurate. For example, in question six, what is grooming, they state, "Most sex offenders actually look for victims." I have spoken elsewhere about how sex offenders do not typically reoffend, and how unaware one can be of the grooming process- how I was unaware that I was manipulating or grooming my victim, how I thought I was legitimately being helpful to him. Sex offenders do not seek out more victims- they typically want their lives back and will do what they can to stay healthy. Of the 20 or so people I saw in treatment, only two removed themselves or were removed from the program for not being complaint. One of those two went on to a different program, where he is progressing well. Additionally, at least 85% of sex offenders are one-time offenders with one victim, one conviction, one offense. 

So using the words 'sex offenders' in the context of answering questions about why and how children get abused must end. Sex offenders who are already known are not responsible for most child sex abuse. There are no established terms for someone who is at risk for sex abusing, or for someone who has committed an act but is undetected, and both of these groups make up the greatest risk to our children. One specific sentence is, "Children are much more vulnerable to sexual abuse because sex offenders rely on children’s innocence and lack of power." They could simply use the word 'abusers', not sex offenders. Using the term 'sex offenders' implies that registered sex offenders are responsible for child sex abuse, yet we know that 95% of sex crime arrests are of first-time offenders. We know already that spreading the myth that registered sex offenders will reoffend puts children in more danger..

They do correct the myth that those who are abused will go on to abuse, which is great. They handle practical application questions about one-on-one policies, babysitting, and what to do if a child discloses abuse. They also talk about how to talk to a child about sexuality and personal boundaries, and how some symptoms of abuse can be symptoms of other problems and that only a professional can tell the difference. 

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