Editorial: Moving our communities from darkness to light

It is the quietest epidemic, but its numbers do not lie.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report revealed that one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, and that one in 10 boys and girls will be the victim of sexual abuse by the time they reach their 18th birthday.

A further dig into these startling facts reveal even larger and more terrifying truths.

Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children ages 17 and under, and 44 percent of sexual assaults with penetration occur to children under 18. Further, child sexual abuse has been determined as the most prevalent health problem children face, and that of the babies born in the U.S. this year, about 400,000 of them will later become victims of child sexual abuse.

While reported incidents of child sexual abuse declined nearly 50 percent nationally over a 12-year span from 1993 to 2005, the rate of child abuse reports has increased dramatically in Chester County over the past few years. In 2014, for instance, there were 414 reports of child sexual abuse; by 2017, that number had soared to 1,924.

There is another number that is equally horrifying: Only 38 percent of child victims disclose the fact that they have been sexually abused, and for every victim who has the courage to tell his or her story, there is a similar victim whose story is never heard. Worse still, there are millions more who know or suspect that a child is being sexually abused, and for reasons having to do with fear, ignorance or avoidance of conflict, never come forward.

It is the deafening and catastrophic equivalent of a giant door being shut, reverberating around our nations' leading healthcare and mental health facilities, in our law enforcement centers, in our classrooms and in our living rooms and our children's bedrooms.

Locally, one agency is doing the necessary lifting to wedge that closed door open. The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc. (CVC) (See story on Page A1) is facilitating a three-year Safe and Healthy Communities initiative to prevent child sexual abuse in Chester County before it happens, and to also provide the adult population with the knowledge to recognize and react to the red flags of childhood sexual abuse.

Through a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State University, CVC staff facilitate the “Stewards of Children” program at schools, churches and libraries all over the county.

Created by the Darkness to Light foundation, “Stewards of Children” is the only nationally available program scientifically proven to increase knowledge, improve attitudes and change child-protective behaviors. It's an all-hands-on-deck initiative whose mission is to minimize opportunities for child sexual abuse; have age-appropriate conversations about sex and boundaries; and sharpen an individual's ability to detect and report irresponsible behavior.

Engaging the county in the topic of child sexual abuse prevention is not being limited to just adults. Through its Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative, the CVC kicked off “Safe Touches” this past September, as part of a two-year goal to educate as many as 5,000 second-graders in Chester County about how they can keep their bodies safe.

Developed by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “Safe Touches” uses colorful puppets and role-playing scenarios to help children identify the difference between safe and unsafe touches. The workshop emphasizes the important messages that if a child has been touched inappropriately, it is never the child’s fault, and for children to keep telling about not-safe touches they have received until they are believed.

All over Chester County – in schools, in libraries and in houses of worship – there is a sound being made by The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, Inc.. It is the sound of voices and truths and breakthroughs, banging down the door of secrecy, over and over, community by community, until there are no barriers left.