Steps to Protect Children: Empowering Communities Through Stewards of Children® Prevention Training
In the year 2000, there was no #MeToo movement, and little awareness of the widespread sexual abuse that occurred through schools, churches and youth organizations. Most parents were naive about childhood sexual abuse, and it was rarely discussed, recognized or treated. In that same year, a group of parents whose children attended a college preparatory school in Charleston, South Carolina, became part of a high-profile legal case involving a teacher who admitted to sexually assaulting over 39 children in three different schools. The parents were outraged when they discovered that, even after administrators had become aware of the sexual misconduct, they assisted the perpetrator in finding teaching positions at other schools, where more children were placed at risk or became victims. The parents developed a passion for protecting future generations of children and recognized that there were no training programs available to teach adults about their role in preventing child abuse. Out of their grassroots efforts, Darkness to Light® was born.
Protecting Children with Disabilities from Sexual Assault
Darkness to Light, 23 years later, is now a national not-for-profit leader with the vision of a world free from child sexual abuse, and their philosophy is simple: It is our job as adults to protect children.
Sexual abuse does not discriminate between race, gender, socioeconomic, academic, leadership status, or abilities. It’s important to acknowledge the high prevalence of sexual abuse because we know that children and adults with disabilities, particularly those with IDD, have been reported to experience sexual assault at exponentially higher rates than their nondisabled peers and remain at risk throughout their lifetime.
There are many reasons for children with disabilities to be at higher risk for sexual assault. In my own family, an early diagnosis allowed for a troop of professionals (speech, occupational therapists, tutors) to enter our family’s world when my son was in early childhood. Although I had a great deal of experience as a special educator, as a parent, I felt so desperate to get my child the services he needed that our family boundaries with professionals were blurry. I never gave a second thought to leaving my child behind closed doors with a tutor or in having home visits. Although most professionals who specialize in supporting children with disabilities are unconditionally trustworthy, we know that perpetrators of abuse seek out positions in which they have access to children with disabilities who are considered soft targets for sexual assault.
Overcoming Barriers in Addressing Child Sexual Abuse for Children with Special Needs
Often, children who use special education services do not have access to family life education at school and may not be aware that a sexual assault is illegal or have been tricked into believing that the relationship is consensual. In sexual relationships, there is no such thing as consent between a child and an adult, or between someone with an intellectual disability and a paid staff person. We cannot count on children to be responsible for figuring out what is inappropriate or illegal, that is our job as responsible adults. Another reason that sexual abuse may not be reported is that children can be very literal. If we ask a child who experienced a sexual relationship with an adult if they have been hurt, they might be confused. A sexual touch may not hurt, and perpetrators of sexual abuse are experts and making children believe that they have done something to deserve it, or that they are willing participants. They may offer presents or special privileges to manipulate a child’s silence. A sexual assault, although inappropriate, may not hurt like falling or getting a shot. This compounds the trauma and shame that the child may already be experiencing.
Children are frequently not believed if they reveal the episode of violation, or they do not have the vocabulary to describe what happened to them.
Parenting Special Needs Magazine has published many articles with strategies that parents can use to promote healthy relationships*, but one of the easiest things to do is to acknowledge that it is always an adult’s responsibility to intervene to stop an abusive or inappropriate situation if they may suspect that it is occurring.
Empowering Adults to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse: Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children® Training
Grounded in the lived experiences of diverse survivors, Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children® is a 2.5-hour training that features poignant storytelling and expert testimony to teach adults practical actions they can take to reduce instances of child sexual abuse in their organizations, families and communities. The training is one of the only evidence-informed, adult-focused, child sexual abuse prevention programs in the United States that is proven to teach adults to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to abuse.
Over 2.2 million professionals and family members have been trained in Stewards of Children®, creating prevention-oriented communities across all 50 states and in 115 countries. There are many communities that offer the training for a low cost, or taking an online version is available through Darkness to Light’s website: www.thenewstewards.org.
The training was recently updated to use trauma and evidence-informed practices for adult learners and offers five steps that we can use to protect children in our community. It should be noted that Stewards of Children® does not focus specifically on children with disabilities, however the concepts are applicable to all children, regardless of their abilities.
Child sexual abuse is a hard topic to address. Sometimes, hearing the stories of survivors of sexual trauma may trigger personal thoughts that seem too overwhelming to manage. Stewards of Children® is interactive but does not involve disclosing prior abusive relationships. Although those prior episodes are important, trainers focus solely on preventing and responding to childhood sexual abuse. Most states have laws that require adults are mandated reporters and should contact Child Protective Services if they suspect that abuse is occurring. It’s important to note that you are not required to provide evidence or proof, just that you have a suspicion. Whether it’s required by law or not, as adults, we have a moral responsibility to take action if we suspect a child is at risk. Your actions could be what makes a difference in a child’s life. To learn more about Darkness to Light or how to participate in a Stewards of Children® workshop, visit www.d2l.org.
The 5 Steps to Protecting Children™ forms Darkness to Light’s framework for preventing child sexual abuse. These steps can help you become aware of the scope of the issue, take actionable steps toward both preventing and responding to abuse, and create safer environments for the children in your life. They act as a guide for developing protective behaviors against abuse.
*Parenting Special Needs issues March/April 2021, May/June 2021, July/August 2021, August/September 2021, November/December 2021, November/December 2022.
About the Author: Molly Dellinger-Wray is part of the Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University and the parent of two fabulous adult children, one of whom benefitted from special education services. For the past 15 years she has coordinated and directed three projects that assist children and adults with disabilities with issues surrounding violence, abuse, sexual assault, and neglect. Together with a team, Molly helped develop LEAP: Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention. Molly’s goal in life is to help everyone enjoy healthy relationships.
Contributor: Carol Hogue serves as Darkness to Light’s Lead Instructor, where she has trained thousands of adults in Stewards of Children®. As a mother and grandmother, Carol is a fearless advocate and leader working to protect all children from abuse. Carol and her husband Marty live in Charleston, South Carolina.