Sex Abuse Primer For Kids, Parents
Longtime Sacred Hearts Academy teacher and coach William Plourde, 53, was arrested and charged with six counts of third-degree sexual assault and one count of first-degree sexual assault. The alleged victim is a 15-year-old girl.
One graduate reached out to me to express her profound shock. This, she said, has rocked the Sacred Hearts community, which includes alumnae numbering in the thousands and scattered around the world. She’s also concerned because of misinformation being tossed around – including, sadly, some “blame the victim” comments she’s seeing on a few social media sites.
I spoke with Evie Yanagida, psychologist and program manager for the Sex Abuse Treatment Center (SATC). She was delighted to share what amounts to a primer on child sexual abuse, and why it is never right to blame the victim.
JM: Let’s start with what constitutes sexual abuse and rape.
EY: Sexual abuse is any unwanted touching in private-part areas. It runs the gamut; there’s a continuum. It could be touching over the clothes, under the clothes, fondling. It could involve sexual harassment, and it can go all the way to rape, which is penetration.
So it’s a wide spectrum, and sometimes young kids don’t understand what’s happening to them and may not even realize that what’s happening to them can be labeled as a sexual assault.
JM: So just because a girl or boy goes along with it, doesn’t know any better, that doesn’t make it any less of an assault.
EY: That’s correct. When you’re talking about minors, the question is the capacity for consent. And certainly for children, that’s not even an issue. That’s not even on the table for discussion.
JM: I’ve had people say to me, 15, 16, that’s not a child.
EY: That’s still a child. I mean, developmentally we know that adolescents’ brains don’t mature until they’re probably in their late teens, early 20s.
And also, with children, they usually know who their offender is. And that offender has the opportunity to gain their trust and then slowly, over time, start doing things to them. And that’s part of the child’s confusion, you know. This is my coach, my friend, he does things with me, everybody loves him. He’s just looking out for me. So a lot of that grooming definitely plays a big part in child sex abuse.
JM: I’ve heard this term “grooming” a lot lately.
EY: Grooming is what the offender does to basically prepare the child – prepare them mentally, psychologically, for being abused. So the grooming process is really all about trust. Offenders are really good about picking out kids who, though they’re not necessarily neglected, they may not have consistent parental oversight, or are viewed as somewhat different or as a loner, or who may have some emotional needs that are not being met.
He’s good at picking out some of these kids and befriending the child’s parents or step-parents, insinuating himself into the family, making himself valuable. “I’ll pick the kid up from soccer practice,” or, “Don’t worry, I’ll watch him over the weekend while you’re busy.”
And the parents just really feel like, he’s such a good guy. He’s being very helpful, he’s really interested in my child.
JM: It’s so insidious.
EY: Yes, it’s very insidious. And they’re very patient. You know, sometimes it can take a long time before they’ll actually start touching the child. And that’s how it starts, with touching.
JM: Ugh, I’m getting chickenskin from you describing this.
EY: I know, I know. I think anybody who’s a parent – you don’t want to see what’s out there. But we tell parents, try to be vigilant but not alarmist in terms of knowing who your kids are going out with. I really would be careful in trusting – or being overly trusting – with an individual, a guy who’s very interested in hanging out with kids who are 20 years younger than him. What adult man wants to do that, you know?
JM: And on the child’s part, there is not only a level of trust, but also that subtle form of coercion leaves them scared to do anything.
EY: Definitely. Kids don’t tell for a number of reasons. A lot of it is the shame or embarrassment, some of it is confusion. Some of it might even be wanting to protect the offender. But there always is the fear of how other people will react. Who will believe me? This man has been teaching (or coaching or has been a friend of the family or is my uncle) for a long time, so who’s going to believe that he’s done this to me?”
There definitely is a lot working against a child when it comes to disclosing. I tell people, if a child does disclose, pay attention, because it’s so hard for them to do it.
When you talk to adults who were molested as children, a good portion of them, I would say 75-80 percent, never disclosed what happened to them. There are too many factors working against that disclosure.
JM: So it’s important for the parents to immediately believe, or rather support, the child?
EY: Oh, definitely. The best thing that any parent or adult can do is to reassure the child, “I believe what you say.” Certainly you’re going to get more information later, but at that time of disclosure it’s very important for the child to feel supported, to feel believed.
JM: We’re always telling our children, “Don’t talk to strangers, don’t trust strangers.” But the biggest danger comes from people we know!
EY: Exactly. Stranger rape or stranger assault is actually more atypical. The child victims who have come through SATC, you’re looking at probably more than 90 percent of offenders where the child knew who that offender was, whether it’s a neighbor or a family member, or a teacher or coach. That’s a whopping number.
Again, as a parent, I’m always trying to walk that line between not being overly anxious, because you certainly don’t want your child to become that way and be fearful of others. But just be watchful and mindful when adults pay extra attention to your child.
When parents are vigilant, and when they put that message out there that we’re monitoring our kids, the offender will go elsewhere, because there’s always somebody else they can choose who will be much easier.
JM: That’s both reassuring and frightening at the same time. Is it possible to prepare a child to recognize the signs to prevent this from happening?
EY:Yes. Sex Abuse Treatment Center has developed a curriculum with the state Department of Education. I think we’ve trained more than 600 teachers statewide to be able to deliver the curriculum in the classroom. And parents can access SATC’s website, SATCHawaii.org. We have several toolkits that parents can use to start the conversation. And the earlier you start, the younger the child, the easier it is to present the information in very concrete terms.