Every year, more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children (a report can involve multiple children). Even though Child Abuse Prevention Month was this past April, the overwhelming prevalence of crimes against children makes the topic worth discussing at any time. Anthony Rodriguez, who works with Santa Barbara Response Network, is himself a survivor of child abuse. He is determined to raise awareness of child abuse for the sake of children’s safety.
“I want people to know more about the issue from the survivor’s point of view,” Rodriguez says. When he comes across comments in abuse cases like “The kids could have told someone,” “Why don’t they just speak up?”, they make him furious. “People don’t understand. They cannot blame the kids. It’s not their fault.” Now 39 years old, Rodriguez recalls his sexual abuse from the age of 5. “I was scared. I didn’t know if I should tell others about the ‘secret.’ I felt so helpless and guilty,” he says. “As a boy, I was also too embarrassed to tell.” Rodriguez still remembers feeling that having the abuse exposed — it lasted eight years — was a threat, rather than salvation.
In as many as 93 percent of cases, children know their abuser. But children seldom express the assault in words, mainly because they believe or are told that no one will believe them. Instead, they express it with a change in behavior — they avoid certain relatives or friends, or they act unusually aggressive or passive, for instance. Parents should keep track of their kids’ behavior and be prepared to be concerned, within reason, if they spot sudden changes in behavior patterns. They can encourage their kids to talk about what might be causing behavior changes, especially if they are suspicious. “Tell them, ‘It’s okay to talk about it.’” Rodriguez advises.
Parents should realize that it is often hard to believe that the friends or relatives whom they thought were safe with their kids are actually the culprits in abuse cases. Also, when abuse is detected and discussed, personal attacks and accusations toward victims’ families can occur and are disheartening. In Rodriguez’s case, his mother was inevitably put on the chopping board. But he says, “If my mother knew about it, she would have definitely stopped it. But she was kept in the dark. She thought she was leaving me with somebody safe.” He notes, “Certain harmful comments toward the victims and their family tend to hinder reporting abuses.” The first response from others regarding the incident is of crucial importance in a child’s recovery from abuse.
If you’re not sure how to talk with your children, many agencies in Santa Barbara can help. Santa Barbara Response Network offers psychological first aid: (805) 699-5608. Safe Alternatives for Treating Youth operates a round-the-clock helpline: (805) 445-7800. For more information, please visit calm4kids.org.
Aretha Chui is an intern with Glendon Association and Santa Barbara Response Network. Anthony Rodriguez works for S.B. Response Network and Our Lady of Guadalupe.