Children who have been sexually abused may not always exhibit clear signs that are easily identified by a parent.
But experts in treating child victims of sexual assault say that sometimes there are behavioral changes a parent might notice. And they say there’s a right way to question a child to find out if sexual abuse is involved.
“I would not just come out and say to a child, ‘Are you being sexually abused?’ ” said James Anderst, a child abuse pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Such concerns about how to talk to a child about sexual abuse might now be on the minds of Kansas City-area parents in light of the latest investigation into a North Kansas City teacher accused of engaging in sexual acts with a then-16-year-old boy a dozen years ago.
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James R. Green, 52, a teacher and coach at Northgate Middle School in the North Kansas City School District, was arrested and charged last week with six counts of second-degree statutory sodomy. Green is accused of sexually assaulting a Smithville High School student in 2005 and carrying on a sexual relationship with him. Police also are investigating allegations that in recent months, Green had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old Blue Springs boy.
The FBI has set up a hotline for possible other victims — 816-805-5138.
Anderst said that in asking about a possible sexual assault, “the best thing a parent can say to their child is, ‘You are not going to get in trouble. I am on your side. It is not your fault. I will make sure you are safe.’ ”
It’s a bad idea, said Anderst, to try to force a child to tell you what you think you might know.
“Kids will tell when they are ready to tell,” he said. If the parent tries to force the issue, Anderst said, “the child may pull back more.”
In 2012, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows, more than a quarter of sexual abuse victims that year were 12 to 14 years old, and more than a third were younger than 9. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
Erin Hambrick, an assistant professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said that some of the behaviors an abused child might exhibit are shared by children stressed for many other reasons that have nothing to do with sexual abuse.
Here’s a tip: “Typically, there is not just one behavior” indicating sexual abuse, “but rather a pattern” of behaviors that should alert a parent, Hambrick said.
Behaviors to look for:
▪ A normally outgoing child suddenly seems reserved, quiet, withdrawn.
▪ A normally well-behaved child begins to act out in school, with friends or at home.
▪ A child’s grades suddenly take a dramatic drop.
▪ Parent notices excessive change in a child’s sexual behavior.
▪ A child exhibits sexual behavior that seems too advanced for their age.
▪ A child who suddenly begins to have trouble paying attention or shows sudden shifts in their mood — depression, anxiety or self-destructive behaviors.
“Unfortunately, a lot of children are highly afraid to disclose” information to a parent. Hambrick warns that questions from the parent to a child “should always be open-ended, and let the child have a voice.” Ask how are things going at school, or how was the time you spent bowling with so-and-so.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following information about child sexual abuse:
▪ Most offenders are known to the child, and teachers and coaches are included on that list.
▪ Children most susceptible to sexual abuse have obedient, compliant and respectful personalities.
▪ Child sexual abuse often involves more than a single incident and can go on for months and years.
Anderst said parents should pay particular attention if their child seems to spend an unusual amount of time with any one adult, talks about getting preferential treatment on a regular basis from a teacher or coach, or comes home with inappropriate gifts from an adult.
And if a parent thinks their child may have been the victim of sexual abuse by a teacher, “call the police” Hambrick said. “Call child protective services.” And “try not to show extreme anger. To the child, that translates: ‘I shouldn’t have said anything about it.’ Transmit two messages: This is not your fault, and we are going to keep you safe, and express that verbally and in body language.”