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Protecting Your Child From Sex Abuse

Experts explain how to recognize signs that your child may have been a victim of sex abuse.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

An arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey murder may finally provide answers in the case that has lasted nearly a decade.

The 6-year-old beauty queen was found dead in the family's Colorado home on Dec. 26, 1996. An autopsy showed her skull was fractured and she had been strangled. There was evidence of sexual abuse.

But even if the new developments in this case lead to a conviction, other parents are left to wonder how they can keep their own kids safe when not even the home protects from a brutal attack. And too many stories about sexual attacks and violence involve children.

"Child sexual abuse is something we all have to be concerned about. It really does take a village to raise a child, but much of what will keep our children safe must be learned in the home. And parents need to take that responsibility very seriously," says Karel R. Amaranth, executive director of the J.E. and Z.B. Butler Child Advocacy Center at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

According to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 67% of all victims of sexual assault reported to the police were children under the age of 18. Some 34% are under the age of 12, and one out of every seven victims is under the age of 6.

Not Just Strangers

Now if you're thinking this means cautioning your children about taking candy from strangers and holding their hand extra tight in the shopping mall -- well, you're only partly right. According to BJS, assault by a stranger accounts for just 3% of molestations in children under the age of 6, and just 5% in children aged 6 to 11.

Since winning the child's trust is part of the abuse pattern, the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs with adults the child knows and comes to trust. And it often occurs right in their home.

"Sexual offenders are not 'dirty old men' or strangers lurking in alleys. More often, they are known and trusted by the children they victimize, and frequently are members of the family," says Esther Deblinger, PhD, a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the developer of a treatment for childhood sexual abuse.

Amaranth says the abuser can just as easily be a neighbor, a close family friend, a baby sitter, a soccer coach, a scout leader, or anyone in a position of trust and authority.

While experts caution parents to be vigilant about all those who seek exclusive contact with their children, they also caution against starting a "witch hunt" for anyone who is nice to their kid.

"The message you don't want to give your child is that the world is a bad or scary place -- or that they should be afraid of everyone who is nice to them," says Amaranth.

So how do you strike a balance between protecting your child and encouraging growth and trust?

It begins, say experts, by building awareness and trust into your own relationship with your children.

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