Do you know the signs of child sexual abuse and human trafficking? It could help save a life.
“April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, recognizing the importance of families and communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect. It’s also a good time to brush up on what to look for and how to help a child who may need it,” said Shamika Byars, nurse practitioner with our Child Protection Team. “According to the CDC, about one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse at some point in childhood. The numbers are staggering and we need to work together to make it stop.”
Shamika provides some insight into how to recognize possible sexual abuse and get kids the help they need and deserve.
Signs and symptoms of possible sexual abuse
- Unusually aggressive and/or disruptive behavior
- Running away
- Extreme changes in behavior (e.g., loss of appetite, binge eating, withdrawal)
- Difficulty in school
- Regression to more infantile behavior such as bedwetting, thumb sucking or excessive crying
- Recurrent nightmares or disturbed sleep patterns
- Unusual interest in or knowledge of sexual matters, sexual talk or behavior
- Overly compliant
- Sense of rejection
- Torn or stained underclothing
- Vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain or itching; swollen genitals; vaginal discharge; urinary tract infections
- Cuts and bruises
- Headaches and/or stomachaches
Child sex trafficking is a type of sexual abuse where girls and boys are sold for sex. Sometimes, the victims don’t even know or believe they need help. While every circumstance is unique, it’s important for all of us to know the warning signs.
Signs and symptoms of possible child trafficking
- Appearing malnourished
- Unusual tattoos, such as a man’s name, symbol of money or barcode
- Suggestive apparel for their age
- Wearing the same clothes repeatedly, no matter the weather
- Very few personal possessions, or a sudden increase in money or possessions with no explanation of where they came from
- Prepaid cell phone
- No identification
- Numerous hotel keys
- Doesn’t want to explain signs of abuse
- Fears authority figures
- Claims to be older than they look
- Seems to follow a script when speaking
- Talks about an older partner
- Not enrolled in or often absent from school
- Can’t elaborate on why they’re in a certain city or for how long
- Stories just don’t add up
- Depressed or uninterested
How to help if you notice signs of child sexual abuse or trafficking
Talking about sexual abuse can be very hard for a child, especially if they’ve been threatened or told not to tell by the abuser. It can be just as hard for adults to talk about it. The most important action is to report the abuse to Child Protective Services or police and get help for the child.
If a child discloses that they’ve been abused, listen and take what they say seriously. If their plea for help is ignored, they may not risk telling again and could remain a victim of abuse for months or years. Assure them that the abuse is not their fault and provide them with love, comfort and reassurance.
10 things you can do to help prevent child abuse
Ideally, we can stop child abuse before it occurs. Here are some steps you can take today.
- Volunteer your time. Get involved with other parents in your community to help vulnerable children and their families.
- Discipline your children thoughtfully. Never discipline when you’re upset. Give yourself time to calm down. Remember that discipline is a way to teach your child. Use privileges to encourage good behavior and time-outs to help your child regain control.
- Examine your behavior. Abuse is not just physical. Both words and actions can inflict deep, lasting wounds. Use your actions to show children and other adults that conflicts can be settled without hitting or yelling.
- Educate yourself and others. Simple support for children and parents can be the best way to prevent child abuse. After-school activities, parent education classes, mentoring programs and respite care are some of the many ways to keep children safe from harm. Be a voice in support of these efforts in your community.
- Teach children their rights. When children are taught they are special and have the right to be safe, they’re less likely to think abuse is their fault, and more likely to report an offender.
- Support prevention programs. Too often, intervention occurs only after abuse is reported. Greater investments are needed in programs that have been proven to stop the abuse before it occurs – such as family counseling and nurse home visits to support parents.
- Know what child abuse is. Physical and sexual abuse clearly constitute maltreatment, but so does neglect, or the failure to provide a child with needed food, clothing and care. Children can also be emotionally abused when they are rejected, berated or continuously isolated.
- Know the signs. Unexplained injuries aren't the only signs of abuse. Depression, fear of a certain adult, difficulty trusting others or making friends, sudden changes in eating or sleeping patterns, inappropriate sexual behavior, poor hygiene, secrecy and hostility are often signs that may indicate a child is being neglected or physically, sexually or emotionally abused.
- Report abuse. If you witness a child being harmed or see evidence of abuse, make a report to Child Protective Services or local police.
- Invest in kids. Encourage leaders in the community to be supportive of children and families. Ask employers to provide family-friendly work environments. Ask your local and national lawmakers to support legislation to better protect our children and improve their lives.
Child Abuse Prevention Month brings awareness, but our Child Protection Team, led by Dr. Robin Foster, is alongside kids and families throughout the year. In addition to her work at CHoR, Dr. Foster has been appointed to the Task Force on Services for Survivors of Sexual Assault by Governor Ralph Northam.