When we think of keeping kids safe in summer, we usually think about swimming pools, firecrackers, bug bites, and sunburns. All of these pose dangers for kids, but we can’t neglect the ever-present danger of sexual abuse.
In more than 90% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is someone the child knows, trusts, and might even love. Summertime offers unique opportunities for such perpetrators to groom and abuse children, and to hide the abuse. For example, children of school age must be supervised by an adult when school’s out, which often means that many working parents must leave their kids with babysitters, neighbors, or extended family during the day. Even day care centers, which (should) conduct background checks on employees, cannot prevent abuse since most perpetrators have not been convicted of abusive crimes that would show up on a background check. Day care centers – whether commercial or in-home – also can’t always predict or prevent how older children will behave toward younger children, or how adults not associated with day care services might interact with the kids.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse employ numerous tactics to groom and abuse children. In the summer, such tactics can include gifts for compliance or silence, such as trips to amusement parks, ice cream, or trips to swimming pools or splash pads. Swimming provides perpetrators with the opportunity to touch children inappropriately in ways that appear innocent, such as by helping them towel off or change clothes. Because children typically regard summertime activities as special or fun, they may be more inclined to keep abusive behavior a secret.
Despite the risks, there is much that parents or non-offending adults in children’s lives can do to keep them safe. The most important thing is to talk to children often about sexual abuse. Arming children with the knowledge and skills to recognize grooming and abuse, and to tell when anything concerning occurs, is an effective way to help prevent abuse. Children are never responsible for preventing sexual abuse, but they deserve to be informed and equipped to recognize abuse if it should occur. Even when children are empowered to recognize and disclose abusive behavior, it’s still important to consistently talk to kids about all that happened during the day, whether good or bad, so that there is a constant environment of open dialogue and lack of secrecy.
Parents and non-offending adults should also question anyone who has access to their children, and to make it known that they talk to their children about every aspect of their day, every day. Perpetrators thrive on secrecy and on the blind trust that other adults place in them, so if they know that you won’t tolerate secrecy of any kind, that boundaries can never be breached, and that trust must be earned, they are less likely to abuse your child.
We’ve all been socialized to be polite and most of us prefer to avoid conflict or awkward interactions with other adults. But when it comes to the health and safety of our children, politeness and comfort must never come before our kids. I would much rather offend an adult than to leave my child with an abuser. It goes without saying that I don’t mind offending anyone in order to protect children. I only wish more adults were like me.
Summer can and should be a fun, exciting, fulfilling time for every child. It’s up to us to make sure that summertime – that every time – is safe for every child. Start today. Start now!