Child abuse includes physical, sexual, emotional and medical abuse, as well as neglect. Learn about signs, risk factors, how to get help.
Jennifer Alvaro has never met anyone who’s had to escape a burning school building.
But as a parent, she’s grateful students are taught about fire safety and how to react in the event of a fire.
She does, however, know thousands of people who have either been sexually abused or have friends or family members who’ve been victims. There’s not a doubt in her mind it’s “the largest public health problem facing our children.”
“The fact that sexual abuse is such a more prevalent problem than any of the other things we educate kids on, that needs to be corrected and there’s a safe way to do it,” she said.
Based in Montgomery County, Alvaro is a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland and Virginia as well as a certified sex offender treatment provider in Virginia. She began her career in 1994 and specializes in the field of child sexual abuse.
Most recently, Alvaro has been a facilitator for Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children program which teaches adults about preventing, recognizing and reacting to child sexual abuse.
A 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education states that the most accurate data available indicates “nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career.”
Even if they’re not victims themselves, Alvaro said children likely know someone who’s already a victim or will be a victim of sexual abuse, which means it’s time to start rolling sexual abuse in with other basic safety rules.
For Alvaro, it’s like explaining to children why they have to wear seatbelts and helmets or why they can’t run at the pool.
“We tell kids godawful, horrible things constantly, and kids are not afraid to ride a bike, they’re not afraid to go to school, they’re not afraid to swim and so this is just another conversation we have to have with kids,” she said.
Incidents like the recent arrest of James M. Bennett High School guidance counselor Allen Mitchell as a result of an investigation into allegations of misconduct with minors can be woven into what Alvaro calls “teachable moments.”
Charging documents showed that investigation started after someone reported concerns about a teenager who said a Wicomico County Public Schools guidance counselor had asked them “inappropriate questions.”
“You just say, ‘When somebody tries to force or trick a kid to do something they don’t want to do or understand, I’m going to teach you ways to keep safe,'” Alvaro said. “I’m going to teach you if you’re worried this might be happening to a friend, how to get them help.”
Prevention starts in infancy, Alvaro explained, with teaching children the correct terminology for their body parts rather than encouraging them to use slang.
By teaching children to say “penis,” “vagina” or “private parts,” she said parents accomplish two things.
First, they give children language that allows them to ask for help from adults without being misunderstood. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Alvaro said this tactic helps parents avoid instilling a sense of shame or secrecy where there is none.
“Should there be privacy? Yes. But shame or secrecy? Absolutely not,” she said. “When parents or caretakers can’t use those words, or at least private parts, what you’re telling a kid is, ‘We can’t talk about that. It freaks me out. Don’t talk to me about it.’ You’re slamming a door shut on a conversation you have to be able to have.”
While it’s important to start sexual abuse prevention early and build gradually, Alvaro emphasized that it’s never too late to start talking to older children about what sexual abuse is and how they can seek help for themselves or a friend.
For any age range, Alvaro said parents and caretakers should be talking to children about good, bad and uncomfortable feelings and touches.
Focusing only on touch is a mistake, she explained, because sexual abuse can include an adult exposing themselves to a child or showing a child pornography.
Including the word “uncomfortable” in those conversations can also give children language that helps them talk about feelings and touches, Alvaro said, that may fall into a confusing gray area between good and bad.
Another critical element of sexual abuse prevention is talking to children about the fact that abusers are most often not strangers.
“If we’re only talking about stranger danger, do strangers abuse kids? Yes, but it rarely happens and so we have to tell kids, ‘Listen, sexual abuse is a big problem some kids might have,’” Alvaro said. “You tell them what that is and then you say, ‘Who do you think would do something like this?’”
Young children in particular will often think of these perpetrators as “scary” or “creepy” strangers, she said, the kind of person that might approach them in the park. But in reality, abusers are typically among the people the victim knows, likes, loves or even lives with.
Because children often don’t report abuse for fear that they won’t be believed if their abuser is a trusted adult, such as a coach or school counselor, Alvaro stressed the importance of making sure children are aware of who an abuser could be.
Finally, at all age levels, she said it’s crucial for children to understand sexual abuse is rarely a one-time event, it’s never too late to ask for help and it’s not the kind of problem children can handle on their own.
Children often don’t even realize they’re being abused, according to Alvaro, either because they’re too young or because they’ve been groomed by an adult who tells them things like, “You’re so much more mature than other kids your age.” As they grow older though, they may start to see sexual abuse for what it really is.
“But many times then at that point when kids realize that wasn’t love, it was abuse, that wasn’t a game, it was abuse, they think they missed their chance and they think it’s too late to tell,” she said. “We really have to stress to kids it’s never too late to tell. There’s always help available no matter how long ago it happened.”
She also recommended asking children to name at least three people other than their parents that they trust to report sexual abuse to, such as a school administrator or close friend’s parent, in case something happens they feel they can’t talk to a parent about or feel that they’re parents have misunderstood or aren’t listening.
Young children versus teenagers
Talking about sexual abuse prevention and sex education aren’t the same thing, a distinction Alvaro likens to teaching children about fire drills or school lockdowns.
Those procedures don’t teach children how to start bonfires or shoot a gun, but they can help keep them safe if they’re in a building that catches fire or if an active shooter event occurs on their campus.
“It’s telling them how to keep safe from an emergency situation. This is the same thing,” she said.
With younger children, Alvaro recommends keeping what-if scenarios basic with questions like “What if you go to the bathroom and you still need help wiping and mommy has to help you wipe? Is that OK?” versus “What if somebody tells you let’s play a game and let’s pretend I’m a doctor and let’s pull your pants down and pretend to put medicine?”
As children get older, however, she said parents should start to get more explicit, which means introducing complex scenarios such as “What if you’re dating somebody and agree to kiss them, but then they want to go further and you say no?” and “What if your friend comes to you and discloses this is happening?”
If it’s available to them, Alvaro says parents should be reviewing the employee code of conduct for their children’s schools, camps and other programs and consider going over those rules with children that are of middle and high school age.
Most abuse can be prevented, she said, and that starts with speaking up when boundaries are crossed, such as a teacher contacting students outside of school from a personal email, phone or social media account, the kind of things that may be included in an employee code of conduct as against the rules.
“Are any of those things illegal? No. Are they grossly inappropriate and are they warning signs? Yes,” she said.
Talking about sexual abuse in the news
Talking about what sexual abuse is, how to prevent it and where to get help isn’t a one-time thing, Alvaro said.
So when an incident makes its way into headlines and starts to circulate school hallways, she recommends using it as a natural segue.
“Kids are talking about this, especially the older kids,” Alvaro said. “Kids are overhearing it on the radio and on the news so just say, ‘Hey, I just read about this. This is a big problem some kids might have. What if you saw something happening and it just made you feel weird and uncomfortable? Would you know what to do?'”
For parents who recognize a face or name from a news report about sexual abuse allegations, she said it’s OK to be direct with children, especially those that are older, and ask them if that individual has ever contacted them inappropriately or made them feel uncomfortable or if they’ve heard any rumors.
In the investigation into the allegations against Mitchell, for example, charging documents state investigators learned from one of the teenage victims that he had asked for a picture of their underwear over Snapchat and they subsequently executed a search and seizure warrant on the 32-year-old’s phone.
They discovered photos on the device of at least two Wicomico County Public Schools students, including one who said they’d been engaged in sexual contact and exchanging nude photos with Mitchell via social media for over a year, according to documents.
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to check their children’s phones, Alvaro said, to see if he’s listed in their contacts or if he’s ever sent them messages or photos, and any evidence they may discover should be turned over quickly turned over to investigators.
Reassure children that these conversations are about making sure they’re safe and they’re peers are safe, not about getting anyone in trouble, she said, and be ready to address potential victim blaming.
“That secondary victim blaming can oftentimes be worse for victims so if parents are hearing rumors or their kids say something to the effect of any type of victim blaming, parents need to be prepared, very clearly letting them know it’s never, ever a victim’s fault,” she said.
What to do if a child tells you they’re being abused
Whether you’re a parent, educator or simply a trusted confidant, Alvaro underscored the significance of believing children who come to you to disclose sexual abuse.
Though false allegations can happen, she said statistics show it’s rare for children to make up abuse.
“Always an appropriate response is to say, ‘I believe you. It wasn’t your fault, and I’m going to try to get you help,'” she said.
The next step, Alvaro said, is to immediately reach out to either Child Protective Services or local law enforcement and report the abuse to professionals who have experience with victims of sexual abuse and can investigate the allegations.
Who to call if you have information about the investigation into the allegations against Mitchell or other instances of child abuse:
- Wicomico County Child Advocacy Center: 410-334-6910
- Salisbury Police Department: 410-548-3165
- Emergency Number for Suspected Child Abuse: 410-713-3900
- After Hours Emergency Contact: 410-548-4891
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