As more and more information comes to light in the case of rape victims at Charlotte Amalie High School, the more the tears flow and the sick feeling in my stomach grows. So much has been stolen from these victims, as in most cases, by someone they admired, cared for and respected. This and other recent recurrence of young people being raped in our community should be enough to call us to action. When we examine these incidents, we must look at the lack of awareness of what to do as a contributing factor. It is up to us, the adults, to keep kids safe and do what we can to prevent child rape. How do we do this?
1. Believe the child. If a child reports inappropriate behavior or boundary violations, listen and believe. It is not your job to investigate the truth behind the allegations. But if you have reasonable suspicion that what a child is telling you is true, it is your duty to report it to the proper authorities. And keep reporting it until someone does something. Our children have to depend on the adults in their lives to protect them.
2. Be approachable. Keep lines of communication open with your child and build a strong relationship with your child. Reserve judgement or trying to fix their everyday problems. Instead let them freely express their feelings and listen to what they have to say. Ask them about their day. When your child can talk with you about the mundane parts of life, they are more likely to feel comfortable talking about the hard subjects.
3. Talk with your child about “safe” and “unsafe” touch. Yes, it is uncomfortable to have these conversations with children, but do it anyway. Even if it’s awkward. Not sure where to start? Kick off with a conversation about respect and body boundaries. Start early and with age-appropriate language. At bath time or when you’re helping them get dressed in the morning is a great place to begin. And please use the proper terms for our body parts. “Vagina” and “penis” are not dirty words. Make sure they know, “It is not OK for anyone to touch you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
4. Teach body autonomy. If your child doesn’t want to hug or kiss someone, for whatever reason, support them. Don’t view this as disrespectful and definitely don’t take it personally. Sometimes we just don’t feel like hugging anyone. By making it OK to say “no,” you are setting the groundwork for protecting them from a would-be predator. You are reinforcing the idea that their body is theirs and theirs alone. With older children, begin the discussion about consent and what that means.
5. Teach children the difference between a “secret,” “surprise” and “privacy.” Secrets often are meant to be kept quiet for a long time and possibly protect information that may make someone upset or unsafe. A surprise is something to be kept quiet for a short time and will make someone happy. Privacy is about respecting another’s boundaries and personal information. In the context of safety, this is an important parent-child conversation. Let your child know that if they feel uncomfortable about keeping quiet, then they should tell someone. Pronto.
Our No. 1 priority as a community should be to keep our children safe. Remember, more than half of all victims of child rape never tell anyone. Each of us has an important role to play. Invite speakers to your events, classrooms and youth groups. Have open, up-front conversations with the young people in your life. Embrace the sanctity of childhood and do whatever it takes to protect it. And if you believe a child is being abused, call the V.I. Police Department or the Human Services Department. Stand up for our children.
— Cacki T. Barrett, of St. Thomas, is the child/youth therapist and outreach coordinator at the Family Resource Center.