Family

How to protect your kids from sexual abuse

Author: Canadian Living

Family

How to protect your kids from sexual abuse

This story was originally titled "A Monster in our Midst" in the May 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

I don't blame Sporty. He was just another frisky, wet-nosed beagle looking for a tree to pee on, or a stump to sniff. On that summer afternoon in the late '70s, the hapless hound couldn't have understood he was being used as a big, wriggly piece of bait to lure an innocent child. Sporty didn't know his master was a monster.

Life as a kid on Elm Street in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., was pretty much perfect. Planted in a vast bowl of evergreens called the Exploits Valley, my hometown of almost 15,000 was famous for its paper mill, Gordon Pinsent and an illustrious burger-and-chip shack known as Harv's. The summers, extravaganzas of warm breezes and puffy clouds, seemed longer than they really were. The year I was 10, I loved riding my purple bike, pretending I was bionic and dancing to "Disco Inferno." We had orange-and-gold sunsets so spectacular I believed light from heaven was cracking through the sky.

Yes, my world on the Rock was sublime. And then I met the boogeyman.

Meeting the monster
With its china teacups and its black upright piano from the 1930s, my Aunt Noreen's house was a perfect little palace on Queen Street. Mom and I spent a lot of time there, sitting on the veranda, listening to the regal rustling of balsam poplars. To me, the house was the most exquisite, civilized place in Grand Falls-Windsor. It felt safe.

On the day it happened, two cousins I had never met were visiting from St. John's. One girl was about my age and, like me, said barely a word. As the adults sipped tea in the living room, chatting about scintillating matters that seemed, at the time, relevant only to people over the age of 105, I was anesthetized with boredom.

Then, a knock. It was Roy, a man who lived up the street. I knew who he was because Mom worked with his wife. With his goofy grin, fuzzy short hair and glassy eyes, he seemed big and loud for such a refined setting, but I had no reason to dislike him. "I thought the girls would like to come out and play with Sporty," he said, and I smiled. When you're 10 and bored, one dog plus lots of sunshine equals good times. And Roy was counting on it.

Soon, we were in our bliss by the balsams and the white snowball tree. Roy was walking with us, the beagle at his feet. Somehow, we ended up in the small, sloping backyard. The same spot where Mom and Noreen, in their ringlets and hand-sewn sunbonnets, had played in the 1930s. And there, in the daylight, the depraved hunter seized his prey.

 Roy bent down behind me, draping his seemingly huge arms over my shoulders and down the front of my pink cotton blouse. I couldn't move. I had never experienced anything like it. I was baffled. He put his hand inside my pink-and-white checked shorts, touching me where a child should never be touched. Trapped in those giant arms, I was frozen as he touched me again. Then he said the four words that have haunted and sickened me for 30 years: "Does that feel good?"

Page 1 of 4I don't know why, but I didn't tell anyone about it. I buried that day in my mind, rarely thinking about it for three years. Then, when I was 12, I woke up one morning with a wet face. For the first time, my dreams had taken me back to my aunt's backyard, making me cry in my sleep. It was only then, at the beginning of adolescence, that I began to realize what Roy had done.

Around that time, he tried to get near me again, brazenly invading my bedroom when he, his wife and other friends were visiting my parents for a small Christmas party. As I lay in my bed, terrified, he pretended to be impressed with the Snoopy hooked rug and Tiger Beat posters on my walls. And then, like a stealthy animal, he moved toward me and put his hands at the top of my blankets. I started crying, hoping it would scare him off. Thank God it did.

Things like this simply weren't discussed in our house. It didn't occur to my parents that sexual abuse could happen to someone in our family. "We lived in our own little world," my precious and incredibly supportive mother, whom I will never blame for anything, told me recently when we discussed what happened to me. "We trusted people."

The return of Roy
In the spring of 1991, I was 22, happy and about to finish my master's degree in journalism in Ottawa. My mother and I had phone conversations at least once a week. "My dear," she said one night, "you'll never believe who's going to jail for abuse." Then she said Roy's name. And something about a trial. And the word guilty.

Suddenly, I was cold. I struggled to keep my voice steady, not wanting Mom to sense the icy explosions in my soul. "Is that so?" I said. "My God."

That night, alone in my room, I took a deep breath and called the Grand Falls-Windsor RCMP. It was time to tell my story. I had waited long enough.

I learned a lot that week. A Mountie told me there were several victims, most of them between the ages of nine and 12 when they were abused.

A day or two after speaking with the police, I called my mother. Finally, with more than a decade of silence behind me, I had to tell her what was going on. "Remember you were saying Roy was going to jail for abuse?" I said. "Well, I don't want you to worry. But he abused me once, too."

My parents were shocked. They were angry at Roy, a "friend" who had betrayed their trust; but they believed me, supported my decision to tell the police and did what they could to help. Mom dug out a snapshot of me and my two cousins, smiling in Noreen's front yard on the day of the abuse. She even found a picture of Roy, crudely pointing up his wife's dress in the early 1980s. The RCMP wanted to see the pictures, so Mom brought them to the detachment. As always, she was on my side.

Page 2 of 4I couldn't wait to go to Newfoundland to testify. I thirsted for it. I was bold by then, inspired by the brave girls and women who had told their truths before me. But later that year, the police told me Roy had pleaded guilty to my charge. He had also been convicted on four other new charges, and a year was being added to his prison sentence. Finally, he was locked up. I didn't have to carry the sordid secret anymore. It was over. Or so I thought.

Seeing the blue line on my pregnancy test in 2003 was ecstasy. I adored being pregnant. It's easy to romanticize motherhood when it's all about the belly and the booties. But since having my first daughter, and then a second beautiful girl, the images have come back. They're murky, like something in a dark watercolour painting. For at least a moment or two every day, I see the backyard on Queen Street. I remember what happened when I was 10. I once talked to a counsellor about it. "It sounds like it's playing over and over in your head," she said. "Like a movie."

Today I watch my children making Play-Doh hamburgers and dancing to "The Doodlebops" and I ache to protect them. They are saturated in joy, sparkles and pink. They know nothing about evil or people who would seek to hurt them. I tell them, only half believing it, that monsters aren't real.

Roy doesn't deserve a place in my consciousness. I resent him every time he hijacks my thoughts. It doesn't help that he lives near Moncton, N.B., now, less than two hours from my house in Saint John, N.B. Like so many other predators, he served too short a sentence and started a life in a new community. The people on his street probably think he's just another nice, old, churchgoing man. It makes me sick.

Keeping her daughters safe
He can't hurt me again. He will never get close to my children. But there are people like him everywhere, with their puppies, their fake smiles and their twisted minds. They're in churches and malls. They're on the Internet.

So, as my eldest daughter turns five, I am facing facts. I don't want to talk to my kids about the potential for abuse, but I must. (See "Six Ways to Protect Your Kids," on the next page). I am doing my research, learning from experts and finding out what I need to do to keep my children safe. With all that I have been through, with all that I know, I have no excuse for letting them down.

The confused girl in the backyard is now the warrior mother, always watching for the next guise of the boogeyman.

For more information, visit Little Warriors. This Canadian site lists books that help parents and kids talk about sexual abuse, and offers the Stewards of Children training program for parents and teachers across the country.

Page 3 of 4Six ways to protect your kids
You need to talk to your kids about sexual abuse to protect them from it, says Glori Meldrum, who was sexually abused as a child and is the founder and chair of Little Warriors, a national nonprofit group that teaches adults how to help prevent, recognize and react to sexual abuse of children. Here are five things you need to know.

1. Teach them the correct names for their body parts. "I've got a five-year-old and a 10- year-old," says Meldrum. "They both know certain parts of their bodies are private and no one should ever touch them."

2. Don't instill fear, says Dr. Linda Keep, director of The Psychology Center of Sherwood Park, Inc., in Sherwood Park, Alta., who has treated many survivors of sexual abuse. When talking about the issue, be calm and matter of fact; give simple, clear messages.

3. Teach kids the difference between good touching and bad touching. Let them know, says Keep, that any place a bathing suit touches is off-limits.

4. Teach your kids how to stand tall and say no assertively in situations when they know something is wrong. "We need to build assertiveness," Keep explains. "This is huge because it will protect them and teach them to trust their own feelings."

5. Keep adds that kids should be told never to approach a lone vehicle, nor tell telephone callers that they're home by themselves.

6. Talk to your kids about the difference between "good secrets" and "bad secrets." "If somebody's telling them not to tell their mom and dad something," says Keep, "that usually means they must go immediately and tell Mom and Dad."

Warning signs of child sexual abuse
Keep says there are many reasons kids keep sexual abuse a secret. Some children are confused and may blame themselves, she explains, while others are threatened into silence or block the memories as a defence mechanism. "Abuse cuts through the psyche at a very deep level," Keep says. "Often, a child must grow into an adult before he or she is mentally equipped to deal with past abuse." Even if a child stays quiet about abuse, or is too young to talk, there can be that clues something is wrong. Keep cites these possible signs of sexual abuse.

Infants and toddlers
: Unexplained pain, swelling or bleeding of the genitals or anus; screaming at diaper changes.

Preschoolers
: Regressive behaviours (such as bedwetting); blood in urine; difficulty walking; irritation of genitals; fear of sleeping in the dark; nightmares, starting to ask for a night-light; fear of a certain adult or gender; uncommon curiosity about genitalia.

Elementary school kids
: Behaviour changes (more withdrawn, sullen or aggressive); significant changes in weight or eating habits; blood in urine; persistent stomach and headaches; abnormal dilation of genital or anal openings; rigid during medical exams; depression; beyondnormal sexual knowledge for child's age; sexually explicit drawings and stories; unusual disinterest in school and friends; molesting other kids.

Junior high kids and teens: Behaviour changes, such as poor hygiene, wearing multiple layers of clothing to bed, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, self-mutilation, depression, suicidal thoughts; unusual knowledge of sexual issues; new resistance to being around certain people; running away; asking many questions (to teachers, for example) about sexual abuse.

Read more
:
A parent's fears: Abuse and abduction
Understanding and overcoming child sexual abuse
Helping children overcome their fears

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