WHITE HALL – Sexual abuse is a concept hard to grasp for kids under a certain age.
Even those who have been victimized may have a hard time processing the actions, which is why there are specially trained professionals who take on these cases.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do,” said Carrie Linn, prevention educator with HOPE Inc. of Fairmont “It’s very important for prevention work to be able to see the signs and know the signs, and know what to do in recording and being able to help children; either prevent them from being abused or if they are, know what to do.”
Education on prevention is the first line of defense for most cases of sexual abuse and assault, Linn said, and it often falls on adults to identify the signs if a child has been abused. That is the foundation for Erin’s Law, which was the focus of a prevention summit held Tuesday and today by the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information Services at the Mollohan Center.
“It’s all about education, helping us know better what we need to know to prevent additional victims,” said Debra Bonasso, education coordinator for FRIS. “If we have victims, which we know we do, then we’re going to be in a place to respond appropriately and network them and get them resources.”
“How do we help these young ones, because we’re looking at about a one in 10 ratio.”
The provisions of Erin’s Law, named after child sexual assault survivor Erin Merryn, requires that all public schools in a state implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program which teaches students, school personnel, parents and guardians the signs that a child has experienced sexual abuse, and how to go about discussing and reporting the action, according to the website Erinslaw.com.
West Virginia is one of 37 states that has implemented the law, and the summit was an opportunity for people to become versed in it, in order to align with the requirements of the law.
“Erin was one of those children that realized ‘If I had this type of education when I was a kid you would have had a lot of these issues not happen,’” said Robert Peters, senior cyber end economic crime attorney for the National White Collar Crime Center. “So that’s a big focus in this piece, how do we implement it and its best practices.”
According to Peters, who is also president of the SHIELD Task Force board, kids often can’t communicate that they have been violated in this nature, so education is important for both kids and adults to understand how to communicate on this topic.
“Based on my experience, a lot of kids don’t even know this is bad,” Peters said. “If it happens in the family it’s just their normal, it’s how they experience life and they don’t know it’s wrong until after the fact and that could be years, if not decades, later.”
Throughout the speeches and discussions which took place during the summit, attendees got an idea of how to tackle these topics in a manner that is age appropriate for the victim. Professionals in the field discussed the importance of making a conversation on the topic comfortable for all parties involved, to ensure the well-being of a child who has been victimized.
“If you’re educated on it and you feel comfortable talking about these really difficult topics with children, then that’s prevention work,” said Ashley Seum, prevention educator for the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center Inc. “A lot of time we get a framework of what somebody is going through, and we don’t ever know what a child is going through.”
Peters said this education for kids is just as important, because they need to not only know when a situation is inappropriate, but also how to put the experience into words.
“I think it’s one of the pieces we’ve really got to emphasize statewide is we have to teach kids anatomical terms,” Peters said. “Predators prey on naivety, they prey on ignorance and they prey on the discomfort of adults to talk about those issues because they’re awkward.
“At the end of the day they target kids who are naive that don’t know body terms.”
Seum said educating teachers and counselors is imperative because they are usually have such a large presence in a child’s life. And because of that rapport, it becomes easier for children to open up and talk.
“If we just let them talk and say whatever they feel like saying, that’s the way to do it,” Seum said. “It’s also just to make adults and people who are in direct contact with children all the time feel more confident and comfortable to have these conversations with the children.”
Nevertheless, these conversations are still difficult even for the professionals, but getting the word out to more and more people, they said, is important in the fight to end sexual abuse, and especially seeing the act performed on kids.
“It’s a hard conversation to have,” Linn said. “We’re trained on these things and even for us sometimes we find ourselves there. So education is exactly what we need.”
The summit will continue today from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at the Robert H. Mollohan Center in White Hall, and Bonasso said there are still some spot available for guest to attend.