By Jetta Bernier
On New Year’s Day, the American Flag was raised atop the U.S. Capitol Building “in honor of survivors and victims of childhood sexual abuse.” This show of solidarity, initiated by Texas Senator John Cornyn, was a powerful reminder that child sexual abuse is, according to the America Medical Association, “a silent, violent epidemic.” An estimated 42 million Americans living today are victims. One-third of them are infants, toddlers, school-aged children and teens; the average age of child victims is eight. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, one in ten or 4.5 million students report experiencing some form of sexual abuse or misconduct by a school employee sometime between Kindergarten and 12th grade.
Last month the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that in 2018 alone, tech companies and the public made 18.4 million reports to the Center’s Cyber-Tipline, that involved over 45 million photos and videos of children being sexually abused – more than double the preceding year, and exponentially greater than the 100,000 reports received in 2008. These paralyzing figures have prompted public health officials to declare that sexual abuse and the online sexual exploitation of children have now reached a pandemic level.
Numbers tell only a partial story. Research confirms that the impact of sexual abuse on children and teens can profoundly affect their physical and mental health, their capacity to learn and succeed academically, and their ability to form healthy social and emotional relationships. The trauma of sexual abuse often expresses itself in adulthood through depression, substance abuse, broken relationships, or criminal behavior. Our nation spends billions each year as law enforcement agencies, courts, child protection, health and mental health systems and social services programs struggle to deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Prevention holds the best promise of reducing the staggering human and fiscal costs.
While raising the flag on the U.S. Capitol was intended to raise awareness about the problem, the reality is that citizens are already reminded with sickening regularity about the extent of child sexual abuse and its devastating impact on our children and communities. Names like Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nasser, R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein, and so many more have infiltrated our national consciousness. Every day, dozens of other names of those arrested for child sexual abuse are reported in local media. We hold our breath waiting to learn about the next parent, neighbor, teacher, clergy, police officer, public figure, youth counselor, theatre director, tutor, etc. whose sexual misconduct has violated our children and our trust.
Clearly, the nation is benefitting greatly from the #MeToo movement that challenges the sexual assault of adults in the workplace. Children, however, remain largely on the sidelines of this conversation. What is required now is a #KidsToo movement to prevent the sexual assault of children in their “workplaces,” that is, in the places children live, learn, and play.
MassKids, the nation’s oldest non-profit child advocacy organization, is taking bold action to do just that. Its unique online action campaign, Pledge to Prevent™, is capitalizing on the public’s heightened awareness about child sexual abuse and is building the knowledge and skills of everyday citizens to take specific, concrete and achievable actions to prevent sexual abuse from ever occurring.
Partnering with parents, national organizations, sexual abuse survivors, college students, etc., the campaign is challenging people everywhere to choose one of over 30 pledges as either a Learner to get the basic facts, a Prevention Influencer to educate others, a Safe Community Promoter to engage schools and youth organizations, or a Movement Builder to promote prevention legislation and policies. Pledgers immediately receive resources matched to their specific pledge in order to build their knowledge and confidence, and empower them to carry out their selected prevention action.
The campaign’s goal is to reach 42 million pledgers – the number of estimated U.S. victims living today. A national launch is planned in April to commemorate Child Abuse Prevention Month. “Celebrity survivors” from entertainment, music, and sports will serve as Pledge Ambassadors who will then challenge thousands of their online followers to take action.
We collectively raised the flag on New Year’s Day to commemorate survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Now, let our 2020 resolution be to raise our voices, get educated, take action, and reclaim the right of all our children to a healthy and safe childhood.
Jetta Bernier is Executive Director of MassKids, the Boston-based child advocacy organization where she leads the Enough Abuse Campaign, a child sexual abuse prevention initiative that has been adopted in 8 states. She is Policy Co-Chair for the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation.