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Preventing sexual violence against children

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There were more than 60,000 incidents of sexual assault of children in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While the physical wounds may heal, these crimes can leave long-lasting psychological scars.

Sexual violence can be prevented, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which has the following tips for stopping sexual violence against children.

“Number one is to have age-appropriate conversations with your kids, not only about risks but to build protective factors,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

She explained this means teaching children appropriate names for body parts, model healthy relationships, and being willing as an adult to speak and answer questions that children may have, regardless of how uncomfortable they may be.

“You want to create an environment in your household where it’s OK to ask questions and know that they are going to get a real answer even if it’s embarrassing or a little outside the social norm,” Houser said. “We can’t create an environment where kids are asking about sex, or bodies, or touching or any of the things we feel them ashamed because we begin to cut ourselves off as a resource if they have something they do need to share with an adult.”

Understanding true facts about offenders is also vitally important, Houser said.

The vast majority of sexual offenders are not strangers. About 80 percent of all sexual offenses are committed by people who are known to the victim, according to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Adam Reed.

“Adults need to understand how offenders operate,” Houser said.

She said adults need to pay attention to what are known as grooming behaviors that offenders generally do before abusing a child. These can include adults paying an inordinate amount of attention to children or constantly volunteering to do things that would have them be alone with children.

“You can’t accuse someone of ill intent, but there are things that adults can do,” Houser said.

She said adults should talk to other adults about behaviors they are concerned about, and take an active role without accusing the person involved.

“Say something like ‘I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time with so-and-so, we’d like to be a part of that. Maybe our families could be a part of that’ so you aren’t leaving that child in isolation,” she said. “Or to say ‘We’ve noticed, some of the adults, that you are hugging and touching so-and-so too often and I just want to let you know that some of the people feel uncomfortable about that.’ That’s a pretty direct way of saying people are noticing without accusing.”

Other grooming behaviors that can be a build up to sexual assault may include doing things like breaking curfew, giving a child alcohol or showing the child pornography.

“Kids know what their family rules are and what’s expected of them,” Houser said. “It puts the child in a bind that they are afraid now that something bad is happening, from a child’s perspective, they are very afraid that they are going to get in trouble and they don’t recognize the power imbalance inherent in those relationships.”

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