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It’s Time to End the Silence and TALK about Child Sexual Abuse

By: Emily van Schenkhof

Over the years as a child advocate, I have had my heart broken many times. But probably the issue that causes me the most pain is the epidemic of child sexual abuse. I still vividly remember one of the first forensic interviews I watched where a seven-year-old child described graphic sex acts in the chirpiest child-voice, while swinging her skinny little legs. I thought to myself, “She’ll be OK.”

The next moment a wave of dread washed over me as a realized that I had no idea if she would be OK.

Child sexual abuse is one of the most horrific crimes in our society—it is the most profound of human boundary violations. The truth is that child sexual abuse is graphic. For most of us, it turns our stomach and as a result we turn our attention away. We don’t want to read about it, and we don’t want to talk about it. Those attitudes, while completely understandable, only serve the interests of sexual predators. Our discomfort in talking about sexual abuse is a big part of the problem.

The first year I worked as a child advocate at the Missouri state Capitol, a legislator interrupted me as I was trying to invite her to an event on child sexual abuse and said, “I don’t want to talk about that!” It stung and I wondered, did I do something wrong? Eventually, I came to understand that it was OK, and in fact necessary, to make adults uncomfortable.

You see, our silence is the very thing that allows predators to hurt our children. They depend on our queasy stomachs, our averted eyes and our lack of vigilance.

The results are catastrophic for children, with 10-17 percent of females and 4-5 percent of males experiencing child sexual abuse. I once heard another advocate describe child sexual abuse as “a mutilation of the soul.” It takes away a key piece of who a child is and many never recover.

The stories of children have taught and given me so much. Not knowing or talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away.

If children can experience sexual abuse and still get up and go to school the next day, surely adults can handle the discomfort of talking about it?

Despite how hard this topic is, I have a lot of hope for the future. I think we can measurably reduce child sexual abuse, and it begins by having the courage to talk about it. We can talk to our children about it in age appropriate ways. We can talk to other adults about it. We can talk to our schools, youth-serving organizations and legislators. We can say, “This happens, but not my child and not the children in my school, community, or country.”

For me, this is power. We have the power to change our world for the better—to not passively accept evil, but to be a part of a powerful good. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we can try. There is no social problem our country has ever solved that didn’t start with caring people who were willing to try.

My hope is that our dialogue will lead to empowered communities and adults who believe they have the ability to stop predators. Continuing to do nothing is a silent concession to those who want to hurt our children. I think we can all say that letting predators win is tragedy that none of us can tolerate any longer.

Emily van Schenkhof is the Executive Director of the Missouri Children’s Trust Fund and has been a long-time child advocate at the Missouri General Assembly.