Our children's stewards: Crime Victims' Center taking its message to thousands in county
● By Richard Gaw
In the film, the pimply-faced teenager speaks slowly, hesitantly.
He shares the story of his time as a younger boy, when he was sexually abused by his babysitter.
Moments later, the balding man in the film talks about his childhood, when the middle school's athletic director sexually abused him, repeatedly. In the black-and-white photographs the balding man displays, the athletic director is smiling. He looks self-assured. Kind. Never the type who could possibly commit such atrocities.
In the film, the swimming champion who later became an Olympian reveals the man who sexually assaulted her repeatedly when she was a young girl. It was her father's good friend.
Then there is the beauty pageant queen, who speaks matter-of-factly about the thousands of nights when her father would enter her room when she was a young girl, and about the sound of feet she heard outside the door of her bedroom one night – those of her mother – and the squeak of those feet on the floor, choosing to walk away.
Each of them shown in the film are not only storytellers, but survivors.
The film, “Stewards of Children,” was shown on Nov. 28 at the Avon Grove Intermediate School before one dozen parents and teachers, in conjunction with the school district's Parent Speaker Series. Throughout the two-hour video and accompanying conversation between those in attendance and the moderator, the facts of what has become an epidemic – and yet what remains largely a closeted truth – took on the presence of a giant and unmovable boulder that lay still at the base of a mountain:
About one in 10 children experiences child sexual abuse before he or she reaches his or her 18th birthday.
Child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health program children face.
Sexually abused children are more likely to experience trauma, anxiety and depression, delinquency, self-harm, homelessness, criminal behavior, incarceration and suicide than those who are not abused.
In over 90 percent of these incidents, children are abused by someone they know.
Close to home, the number of child abuse reports has risen dramatically in Chester County over the last five years. In 2014, 414 reports of child sexual abuse were recorded; in 2015, 1,306; in 2016, 1,681; and in 2017, that number rose to 1,924. In short, Chester County has reached a crisis stage, and the Darkness to Light's “Stewards of Children” program is to recruit advocates in an effort to eradicate child sexual abuse, one workshop at a time.
Launched this past March by a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State University, the “Stewards of Children” program is the first comprehensive initiative of its kind anywhere in the country, and is an outgrowth of the county's commitment to preventing child sexual abuse. The program is being offered by The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County's (CVC) Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, in partnership with the Chester County District Attorney's Office, the Chester County Children's Advocacy Center, the county's Department of Children, Youth & Family, and all county schools.
Facilitated by the CVC, “Stewards of Children” has already been presented to more than 2,000 adults in the county, with an ultimate goal of reaching more than 20,000 adults. The two-hour film and discussion series will be seen in schools, libraries and meeting halls in Chester County for the next three years.
Deborah Ryan, Esq., CVC's county coordinator, calls child sexual abuse a “health crisis” that she feels has not been properly addressed, “so we are dealing with this now as a community because we have no other option,” she said. “As we bring the message out and it resonates – and the more we see the good people who care – the more that we have to work together to broaden the scope of our message, which is to protect our children.”
While still in its infancy, there are sure signs that the program is already making an impact.
“People walk away from this program empowered, so now they say, 'I understand that child sexual abuse is a huge risk, and now I have the ability to step in, and intervene,'” said Kathleen Gast, a prevention education and volunteer coordinator for CVC, who monitored the program at Avon Grove.
“Stewards of Children” is only one initiative included in a packed roster of CVC programming. In a given week, Gast and her team of educators will travel to different regions of the county, presenting as many as five programs a day, and between 15-20 programs a week. Through the use of puppetry, CVC's “Safe Touches” program is taught to second graders throughout the county and introduces them to the rules of trust, and how to sense when trouble is about to occur. The CVC also moderates anti-bullying workshops, and holds workshops for students from third grade through college, that stress the importance of establishing internet safety. In programs targeted to the K-12 and college students, the CVC staff also teaches healthy relationship programs that focus on bystander intervention and the link between sexual assault and alcohol abuse
It's about stressing the importance of establishing core values and messages, Gast said.
“We speak to young people about internet safety and creating healthy habits that reflect their offline life, and building their values to be reflected in their online life,” she said. “It's all part of prevention. There are concrete things we address within the program – speaking with possible predators online, for example – but within the bigger realm, our goal is to empower children to live a safe life, both on and off line.”
For those who attend the “Stewards of Children” workshops, it's the statistics detailing the number of child sexual abuse cases that first grab attention.
“Many of them don't know that this is the reality,” Ryan said. “Many people have been in denial for a long time about child sexual abuse, and that's to the detriment of the children. Vulnerable kids are being impacted because adults are not taking the responsibility to protect them as they should.”
Ryan said that the stories of abuse told by those in the film serve as a “wake-up” call for those who attend the program.
“Hearing the stories of the survivors in those videos is the most compelling parts of the workshop,” she said. “Most people are in denial about child sexual abuse, because it's an uncomfortable topic that makes people feel uneasy. Our mission is to bring this into the community so that we no longer live with our heads in the sand, and to make people aware so that they can protect children instead of turning a blind eye to it.”
The broad reach of the “Stewards of Children” program extends far beyond parents, teachers and school administrators. It also travels to police departments, public safety training units, rehabilitation centers, domestic relations departments and to those who have recorded criminal activity.
It's even reached prisons, where Ryan said revelations of child sexual abuse are common.
“What I have found most interesting about the program is that people in prison, treatment courts and rehab have been disproportionately sexually abused as children, and many are disclosing this for the first time in these workshops, with me,” she said. “Many of them are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, have been in and out of prison for many years, and have had an underlying trauma that had never been dealt with before.
“It's led to crimes to fuel their self-medication, that have led to crimes in order to fuel their addictions that leads to prison, and when they get released, they don't get the help they need, and the recidivism continues to spiral.”
While Ryan, Gast and the staff at CVC have all been witness to such breakthroughs, there is also the other side of the story of child sexual abuse – the ugly truth that's never told. When Ryan was a child abuse prosecutor in the Chester County District Attorney's Office, it was not uncommon for her to hear a child tell her that he or she was told to keep quiet.
“They would tell me, 'If I came forward, it would be my fault that we were back on the street,'” Ryan said. “They would tell me, 'Dad is paying the bills to keep us in the house. He's put a roof over our head and we can eat, and even though he has molested me, I was told that I needed to be quiet about it.'
“The consequences of disclosing can be catastrophic for families. Typically, the mother has come forward to me, to tell me that the family has chosen not to do anything about it. In essence, they are choosing to stay with the offender for their safe keeping, even though their child is being molested. It's a hard thing to hear, but it's not uncommon. There is guilt, shame and embarrassment. They don't want to talk about it, and they certainly don't want anyone else to know about it.”
Ryan and Gast believe that the CVC's community outreach initiative, highlighted by the “Stewards of Children” program, is a way to confront, embrace and slowly tear down that wall of secrecy.
“We're here with this program for the next three years, so why not have something that's so sorely needed?” Ryan asked. “I don't know why something like this has not been done before, but we're here now.”
There is a moment during each “Stewards of Children” workshop Ryan teaches when she feels the mission of this initiative crystallizes.
“A good chunk of those who attend these workshops are very positive with their feedback,” she said. “Here, we're doing something to prevent it from happening in the first place. It's a different perspective. We're connecting in communities where this message is resonating, and it's a powerful message.
“The result of these programs shows that there is good in humanity, and that people care and want to change the way things have been. I am empowered to keep this mission going, because I think we are making a difference.”
“Advocacy work is hard, but I feel called to to do this work, because if we're not doing this work, who is going to do this work?” Gast said. “There are so many more empowering moments that I have experienced in teaching these workshops than desperate ones. I am seeing people more comfortable talking about this subject and acknowledging the reality of this topic, and that in itself is positive.
“I just want to continue to push the boulder.”
To learn more about the CVC commitment to eradicating child sexual abuse in Chester County, or to schedule a workshop, contact Deborah Ryan, Esq., at email@example.com, call 610-692-1926, ext. 220, or visit www.cvcofcc.org. To learn more about the “Stewards of Children” program, visit Darkness to Light's website at www.D2L.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn the facts. One in ten children are sexually abused, and over 90 percent of them know their abuser.
Minimize opportunity. Eliminate or reduce isolated, one-on-one situations to decrease risk for abuse.
Talk about it. Have open conversations about our bodies, sex and boundaries.
Recognize the signs. Know the signs of abuse to protect children from further harm.
Reach responsibly. Understand how to respond to risky behaviors and suspicions or reports of sexual abuse.
Source: Darkness to Light