The writer is executive director of Project Harmony.
“Why didn’t you run, why didn’t you say something, why didn’t you speak out sooner?”
These are some of the questions I hear repeatedly of survivors of sexual abuse, sexual assault and even human trafficking. As if it is their responsibility to get help.
The truth is, it is very rare that a child will ever tell. Did you know, on average, from the time abuse has occurred to the time a child finds the courage to tell a trusted adult is nine years?
Survivors tend to ask themselves, “Who will believe you?” “Will you be retaliated against?” “What will happen to your family/friends?” Unfortunately, these fears are real. Treating sexual abuse as taboo only compounds survivors’ self-inflicted shame and humiliation. We need to create a culture that removes the shame and silence surrounding abuse.
Federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman says it best: “The alleged behavior (of Jeffrey Epstein) shocks the conscience.”
It is easier to think this problem only affects others and that it does not exist in our community. The truth is, it happens right here in Omaha, and it happens every day.
The statistics are startling. One out of 10 children (boys and girls) is sexually abused before their 18th birthday. More than 90% of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know or love. In the past year, Project Harmony served over 2,750 children, spanning all races, genders, ages and socioeconomic types. There are 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in the United States, and it is time we listened.
Every day I see the courage of children coming forward to share what they have experienced, and every day I witness the power of resilience. But our children cannot overcome sexual abuse alone. It is not their responsibility — they need each of us to stand up and say, “Enough!”
It is our responsibility, as adults, to be someone in the life of a child and provide the unconditional love and support they need — frequently telling and showing the children in our lives how much we care about them. The most important thing we, as a community, can do is keep an open line of communication. Our best defense against child sexual abuse or sex trafficking is the relationship we have with our children. Children who are confident and feel loved and supported are less vulnerable to manipulation tactics.
It is our responsibility to protect children and make sure they are free from harm and feel safe. By eliminating opportunities for children to be in isolated, one-on-one situations with adults and older youth, we can dramatically reduce the risk of abuse.
It is our responsibility to talk about it. Each allegation should open our eyes to the insidious nature of sexual abuse. It is essential to teach children about physical boundaries from an early age. They should be taught how to say “no” and mean it when anyone crosses a physical boundary.
It is our responsibility to believe children when they say they’ve been hurt. The single most damaging thing we can do is to dismiss, disregard or outright negate a child’s attempt to disclose abuse. We can either amplify or de-escalate a child’s anxiety depending on our own internal reaction. Be prepared to react calmly and sensibly if a child discloses abuse or if you suspect boundaries have been violated.
And it is our responsibility to report. In the state of Nebraska, we are all mandatory reporters. Contact your local law enforcement or the child abuse hotline if you suspect a child has been abused or neglected. You will never regret making the call, but you could end up regretting it if you don’t.
Together, we can end child abuse. End it. But to do this — to really do this — we all have to have a stake in it. You have to have a stake in it. You are part of the solution.
To report child abuse: