Guilt, fear, confusion – there are a variety of reasons why sexual abuse of children remains left as a secret untold, and whether the abuse happened yesterday or 50 years ago, its impact is felt throughout a lifetime.
But for every haunting echo of the past, there’s a voice advocating for a safer future.
In Shelburne, that voice is Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention.
The organization focused on the personal safety of children is changing the culture through prevention education far and wide – most recently, at the United Nations 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva on Nov. 14.
For Jennifer Mitchell and Rosemary Webb, presenting the Think First & Stay Safe Adult Training and Youth Curriculum, and Teen Lures TV Newscast School Program, before 35 countries was an “absolutely incredible experience,” not only experts and co-presidents of the organization, but as sisters furthering the work of their father, Dr. Kenneth Wooden.
He founded Child Lures Prevention 35 years ago and developed an evidence-based Pre-K through grade 12 curriculum, which has reached hundreds of thousands of students on an annual basis in over 9,000 schools and school systems. It has also been used by child advocacy centers, youth groups, faith-based organizations, among others.
Six years ago, Child Lures Prevention formed a Global Partnership to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse with “Tom’s Secret,” a five-minute educational animation by L. Raphael Geneve’s Global Army Against Child Abuse. The video highlights a child’s inner struggle to tell his mother about an abusive situation before eventually revealing his secret.
“Tom’s Secret” has been integrated in Child Lures Prevention’s Think First & Stay Safe program lesson, “All Secrets Can Be Told.” The video is free, has over 710,600 views and 4.4 million “Likes” on YouTube.
“Children want to learn and discuss personal safety issues,” the sisters told the packed room. “By talking openly about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, bullying/ cyberbullying, digital and online exploitation, sexual images of children (child pornography) and human trafficking, we can help prevent these crimes against the world’s children.”
The presentation received praise and interest in continued support.
“We’ve been in touch with people that we’ve met there,” Mitchell said. “They were thankful for the work we’ve done and interest in expanding globally. We’ve reached out to people to see if we can extend what we did in the U.N. in New York [headquarters].”
“The ambassadors are pulled in so many directions, and so to actually have a showing on this issue to 35 countries was fairly huge.”
A Family Effort
Since they were children, Mitchell and Webb have dedicated themselves to the cause.
Their father, an educator who set up a school in a juvenile prison, had several students who had run away from abusive homes and situations. He made sexual abuse prevention his cause and went on to publish two books and expose the issue through investigative reporting.
When Mitchell and Webb were teens, they lobbied Congress to watch a CBS “Sixty Minutes” segment on child pornography, which was based on their father’s investigative reporting.
“We grew up with our father giving seminars all the time and being on television,” Mitchell remembered. “Mike Wallace would be in our backyard filming a segment.”
Shortly thereafter, the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977 came into effect as the first federal legislative effort to regulate child pornography and provide funding for survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation.
“We very quickly realized the importance and how many kids are abused and how it affects their full life,” Mitchell said.
The co-presidents have tallied up a long list of contributions and have passed on the message to another generation: their own children. Mitchell’s 19- and 16-year-old sons and Webb’s college-aged son and daughter, have all volunteered to help with the family mission.
All Secrets Can Be Told
To get a sense of Child Lures Prevention’s impact, one child advocacy center, the Indiana Center for Prevention of Youth Abuse & Suicide, presented the curricula to over 100,000 K-12 students last year, in 126 schools within nine counties. Materials went home for parents to review.
As a result, 1,853 student requests to talk to a trusted adult and 107 reports of sexual abuse made to the Department of Children’s Services.
Holly’s House, another child advocacy center in Indiana, teamed with the University of Evansville to conduct a study on the Think First & Stay Safe program. “Sexual Abuse Disclosure Mediates the Effect of an Abuse Prevention Program on Substantiation” was published in the Journal of Maltreatment this year.
The data revealed that children who were exposed to the program and had forensic interviews at Holly’s House Child Advocacy Center had a 12.4% higher disclosure rate than children who were not exposed to the program. Specifically, 77% of those with access to Think First & Stay Safe disclosed abuse.
Of the children exposed to the program who had forensic interviews, 68% of reported abuse was substantiated versus not substantiated. Conversely, those who hadn’t been exposed to the program, only 8% of reported abuse was substantiated and 92% of cases were not.
Molly Elfreich, the forensic interviewer in this research study, “recounted several firsthand interactions with children who stated point blank that it was not until the TFSS program came to their school that they realized they were being abused and felt compelled to disclose.”
The Think First & Stay Safe program starts as early as pre-k. Approaching it positive information has put parents’ minds at ease.
“Sometimes people are afraid of the whole notion of child sexual abuse prevention education,” Mitchell said, “It’s really personal safety education.”
The teen program provides several interactive opportunities, and they help lead the lessons.
“There’s so much dating violence; we’re trying to give kids the information they need to have healthy relationships,” Webb explained. “Kids just start dating and nobody really gives them any information about treating one another with respect.
“We don’t just hand the 16-year-old the car keys. There’s a process.”
Sexual abuse survivors have also assessed the program and provided feedback. The focus group shared two key points: If they had gone through the program in school, they would have known that they weren’t alone, and they would have known that it was against the law, Webb said.
This speaks to the heart of “Tom’s Secret.”
“Every secret can be told,” Mitchell added extra emphasis to “can.”
“It’s not ‘should be told’ or ‘have to be told.’ It’s when the child is ready, when it’s right for them,” she said.
School districts, religious institutions, sports teams – abuse has found its way across all types of child-serving organizations. The training has already shown shifts in the dialogue and outcomes.
One mother approached Holly’s House after her son came home with the program material.
Mitchell recalled the mother saying that the parent guide, “‘made me realize that I was in a domestic violence situation.’ she said. ‘I saved my son and I. We got out of it because of this guide.’”
After Child Lures Prevention teamed up with USA Gymnastics, a teen approached her mother about her coach sending her sexually-suggestive texts. A call to USA Gymnastics and the police resulted in an arrest.
“Five other girls came forward with text messages,” Mitchell said. “None of the girls told each other about it because they were all vying for positions on that team, and they hadn’t had the education. He was grooming; he was just starting.”
They regularly receive feedback from educators, parents, and students about the power of education and prevention; the work, though, is never over.
“We let kids know they have rights, and they have a right to live free of abuse,” Webb said.
To learn more about Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention programming and access to resources, visit https://childluresprevention.com.