Keeping Special Needs Children Safe

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This blog post is not a warm and fuzzy one. It is not comfortable, and it is not easy, but it is life-alteringly important. In light of the recent arrest of an Adventist school principal in my state for raping and molesting two young girls, I decided to tackle this very hard subject in respect to my special needs child. I do not like feeling helpless, and my job as mom to this special boy is to learn how to protect him.

My question going into this was simply this: How can I keep my child with special needs safe when it is so hard to keep ANY child safe?

This question catapulted me into a search that has lasted for days. I wanted answers, techniques, and strategies. I wanted to tackle this issue head on with my own special needs son, and I decided to share with you what I learned.

  1. Children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse. It is our responsibility as adults to recognize, react and respond to signs of sexual abuse in all children. There are some specific do’s and don’ts that are especially helpful to keep children with special needs safe. (scanva.org)
  2. Although about 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men with developmental disabilities will be sexually molested by age 18, only three percent of their attackers go to jail (Hingsburger, Press Release CP Wire, May 2002). We have to stop living as though this does not happen. We have to be proactive in protecting our kids and teaching our kids how to protect themselves.
  3. Children and youth with disabilities are more at risk for sexual abuse and assault because of the following:
  • They often need assistance with personal care and hygiene

  • They may find it difficult to report abuse because of communication difficulties

  • They are often taught to comply with authority, which may make it harder for them to recognize abuse

  • They may be targeted because of their lower cognitive functioning

  • They may not be believed when they report abuse

  • Lack of knowledge about sexual issues

  • Misinformation about sex from peers, rather than books or other reliable sources

  • Lack of intellectual ability to understand the changes happening to their bodies

  • Misplaced trust in others due to increased dependence on others for assistance

  • A tendency to be overly compliant, particularly those children requiring a high level of support

  • Lack of assertiveness training or skills

  • An overprotected lifestyle and limited social contact

  • Lack of assertiveness training or skills

 

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Body Education

It’s not easy for us to tackle this issue, even with our neurotypical kids. Sex education, or as I refer to it, body education, acquaints our kids with the proper names for their body parts. This gives them the language with which to report abuse. Many people with disabilities who have had no body education or poor body education have failed to learn about love, warmth, caring, and pleasure, and therefore cannot distinguish that which is good from that which is wrong. This is dangerous in relation to abuse. They need to know what is good and healthy so that they can discriminate what is wrong and bad. Decide what is appropriate for your child to know and understand. Take into consideration their age, development, and environment, and then remember to revisit the issue often throughout every year. Repetition will help them remember what they learned and give them an opportunity to disclose if anything has happened to them.

 

  1. Think ahead — be proactive (“pre-teach”).

  2. Be concrete. Talk about the penis or vagina, not the birds and bees.

  3. Be consistent and repetitive about sexual safety.

  4. Find someone of the same gender and who is 100 percent safe to teach the basics of safety and hygiene.

  5. Be sure to address the social dimension of sexuality, as is appropriate.

  6. Strongly and positively reinforce all appropriate behavior.

  7. Redirect inappropriate behaviors. For example, if a child is likely to masturbate in public, give him something to carry or hold, etc.

Some of the documented benefits of body education for young people with an intellectual disability:

  • Increased social skills

  • Improved assertiveness

  • Greater independence

  • An ability to take greater responsibility for their sexuality

  • Reduced risk of sexual abuse, STIs, and unintended pregnancy

  • The language to report an incidence of abuse

  • Changes to behavior, such as adopting more acceptable expressions of sexuality

  • Healthier choices

  • Less chance of risk-taking behaviours

(betterhealth.vic.gov.au)

Here are some resources for easy to understand body education:

http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/healthybodies/boys.html

http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/healthybodies/girls.html

The Care and Keeping of You, Book 1 (ages 8+)

The Care and Keeping of You, Book 2 (ages 10+)

The Boy’s Body Book (ages 10+)

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Privacy, Personal Space, and Boundaries

  • Teach your child about private body parts. It is often helpful to define “private” body parts as the parts covered by a swim suit or underwear. Use pictures or instructional dolls to show what you mean. The more concrete the experience of learning, the better they will remember.

  • Teach your child about privacy and how some things are only done in private. Help your child define private spaces in the places where he spends time. For example, your child’s bedroom with the door closed is private, as is a stall in a public bathroom. Help them to learn how to ask for privacy. Be consistent in helping them give you privacy as well.

  • Model respect for your child’s personal space and physical boundaries by asking permission or declaring what you are going to do before touching him. Sometimes we inadvertently teach children to be helpless, passive, or compliant by doing things and making decisions for them. We help children learn healthy boundaries when we allow them some independence and input on decisions affecting them.

Touching

  • It can be challenging to teach children about touch, especially when caregivers, therapists, or medical personnel touch them in ways that might not be welcome, but that are required for their care. Sometimes touch that feels “bad” (for example a shot) is a touch that is necessary and therefore “good.”

  • Advocates recommend using concrete concepts like “red flag” and “green flag” to help children understand touch that is okay, or “green,” versus touch that is not okay, or “red.” Start by specifically addressing genital touch and when genital touch is okay (e.g. when getting help from a parent or caregiver with personal care or when being examined by a doctor), and when genital touch is not okay (e.g. when someone asks your child to show his genitals or asks him to look at or touch their genitals).

  • Use the touch situations your child experiences regularly to define specific touches that would be considered “green flag” as well as those that would be “red flag.” For example, a “green” touch would be when your child’s caregiver helps him to wipe his bottom after using the toilet, and a “red” touch would be the caregiver rubbing your child’s bottom when he is not using the toilet.

  • Once you’ve helped your child define specific touches as “green” or “red,” look for opportunities to practice determining whether touches are “green” or “red,” and how to respond to “red” touches.

  • It is very important for children to understand that touching rules are for everyone. Just as it is not okay for someone to give them a “red” touch, they should not be touching others with “red” touches.

Sexual Behaviors

  • It is common for children of various ages to engage in sexual behaviors both alone and with playmates. Use your knowledge of your child and of developmentally expected sexual behaviors in children to recognize sexual behaviors outside of what is commonly expected in children at similar developmental stages.

  • When you find your child engaging in age-appropriate sexual behaviors, for example exploring his own body or playing “doctor” with another child, calmly acknowledge what you’ve seen and set clear expectations. “It looks like you and Janie are comparing your bodies. Now get dressed. And remember, we keep our clothes on when we’re playing.” Remember your lesson on privacy? This is a great chance to reinforce that boys and girls do not go in each other’s rooms, or that we do not go under blankets together.

  • When you recognize concerning behaviors, you may need to be clearer or firmer in defining and enforcing your rules. Again, adapt your expectations to how your child responds to rules and expectations in other areas of life. Do not be afraid to use very specific language.

  • If you are seeing a pattern of concerning behaviors in your child that doesn’t respond to clear and repeated directions, discuss this with the professionals on your child’s care team, and consider seeking help from professionals who are experienced working with children who have problematic sexual behaviors.

Safety Skills

  • Saying “no” is an important safety skill. Teach your child to say “no” in lots of different ways. Help him communicate his “no” through speaking, shouting, shaking his head, stamping feet, making faces, etc. Have fun practicing his “no.” Share your child’s way of communicating “no” with his care team and your family. Ask them to respect your child’s “no.” This includes allowing your child to say “no” to hugs, holding hands, etc., when they don’t want to.

  • Help your child prepare to ask for help from a safe adult. Identify people in the various places your child spends time whom he might turn to for help. Consider the particular aspects of your child’s personality, his communication skills, and his ability to recognize concerning situations, and use role playing or practice scenarios to help him prepare for situations he might encounter.

  • Talk with the people you and your child have identified as safe adults. Explain that you and your child have made a plan for how your child will approach them if your child needs help. Ask them to agree to support your child when needed.

  • Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. Surprises are joyful and generate excitement in anticipation of being revealed after a short period of time. Secrets exclude others, often because the information will create upset or anger. When keeping secrets with just one person becomes routine, children are more vulnerable to abuse. Explain that adults should never ask him to keep a secret, and, if an adult does, to tell you or another safe adult.

Talking About Sexual Abuse

  • Children need to understand the range of behaviors that are considered sexual abuse. Be explicit about what is not okay for someone to do or ask your child to do. For example, “It is not okay for people to show you their private parts or to ask you to show them your private parts. It is not okay for people to touch your private parts or ask you to touch their private parts. It is not okay for people to say or write sexual things about you or your body, and it’s not okay for you to say or write sexual things about other people or their bodies.”

  • When talking about sexual abuse, use examples that include people your child knows, including caregivers, relatives, peers, siblings, people in authority, etc. This is important since more than 90 percent of the time children are sexually abused by someone they know. It is important for children to understand that even people they know and like can be inappropriate and not follow the “rules” about touching children.

(Adapted from http://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/tip-sheet-9.)

So, what else should you do?

Be proactive in safety planning for your child, and don’t be embarrassed to ask questions or intervene in concerning situations. Take the time to plan for safety, talk and listen, and voice your concerns.

  • Ask questions of your child’s daycare, school and recreational activities. Every organization that cares for your child should have policies to prevent abuse, including background and reference checks for staff members, professional training for preventing sexual abuse, and rules regarding unsupervised or one-on-one time between adults and children.

  • Let people know you are aware and observing. Drop in unexpectedly on your child’s activities from time to time to ensure your other caregivers know you are watching. Safety is increased when everyone around your children knows that you are an active and observant caregiver!

  • Decrease isolation. The majority of sexual abuse cases occur during one-on-one situations, so limit the time that adults or older youth have alone with children. And, be aware of children and families who may be especially vulnerable, such as children with disabilities or families in high-stress situations.

  • Speak up when you observe concerning or inappropriate behaviors, even if the person exhibiting these behaviors is a member of your family or an older youth. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable having difficult conversations, but remember that a child’s safety trumps our own discomfort or embarrassment. If you feel you can’t have a conversation with someone who is being inappropriate, find someone who can and who will help you intervene.

  • Report anything you know or suspect might be sexual abuse to the child abuse hotline: 1-800-422-4453. It is never easy to report abuse, especially if it is someone you know. But remember, it is our responsibility as adults to speak up and keep our most vulnerable children safe.

(http://www.chicagocac.org)

Finally, Trust your intuition. Many families have reported that they felt something was wrong but they kept ignoring that voice in the back of their head. God gave us instincts, and we have to learn to trust them. Following your instinct just might save your child from harm. Learn the signs of child sexual abuse so that you can be aware of your child’s reactions. You are your child’s voice; do not be afraid of speaking up.

If you learn about any type of physical or sexual abuse at school, at church, at therapy, or anywhere, demand that the proper authorities are notified immediately and that an incident report is filed ASAP. If you suspect physical abuse, take pictures of the child and document everything that you notice. You are the expert on your child. Trust yourself.

This is not an easy issue to deal with. However, this is a vital issue to be aware of because it is one that can be so easily swept under the rug, especially for moms and dads who are just trying to keep our kids’ therapy schedules and homeschooling schedules in line! I do not pretend to know or to have presented all the vital information on this issue, but I hope that I have given us all a good start in thinking about the sexual safety of our kids who do not always have a voice for themselves. Please feel free to give feedback, ideas, and thoughts so that we can all learn together how to best protect our children.