Jason Clark: Watching out for wolves

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As a parent of five children younger than 16, I am grieved by the shocking news that struck our community this week. Allegations of sexual abuse always are heartbreaking, and my heart and prayers go out to the victims and their families. The suspect was someone who enjoyed a position of trust and authority, making his alleged actions even more horrifying. As Undersheriff Ray Birch stated in a Steamboat Today article, abusers often are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (“Local sex assault charges relate to 1 victim,” April 21). Discovering that the suspected abuser lived among us is a sobering reminder that most abusers are friends or relatives of the victim, leaving parents and grandparents wrestling with hard questions of their own. Among those questions is the issue of how to talk to our children about sexual abuse, giving them an opportunity to tell us if anything troubling has happened.

If you want to talk to your children about the issue of sexual abuse, pick the time and place carefully. Choose a place that is private and comfortable for your child. Never talk to your child in front of a suspected abuser.

Talk about secrets and promises. Explain that surprises are joyful, happy times, but secrets can hurt people. If an abuser has told the child that “this” is their special secret and extorted a promise from the child not to share the abuse with anyone, the child will need to be reassured that nothing bad will happen to him or her by opening up to you. Sadly, at times, abusers may threaten children with harm if they talk about the abuse. Children need to know that they are safe with you and that it’s always OK to tell you a secret, even if they made a promise.

Assure children that they are not in trouble. Keep your emotions in check. Children are quick to pick up on our own emotions and often will respond the way they think we want them to respond. When we are using a serious tone and expressing through our body language that something serious is happening, children need to know that they are not in trouble.

Be direct without embarrassing your child. If you notice unusual behavior, address what has caused concern. For example, “I am concerned because I heard you say _ and I want you to be safe.”

Use questions. A helpful transition might be, “I’m going to ask you some important questions, and I need you to tell me the truth so that I can help you be safe. Can you do that for me?”

■ Has anyone ever asked you to take some or all of your clothes off?

■ Have you ever seen someone else with their clothes off?

■ Has it ever hurt when you went to the bathroom?

■ Has anyone ever asked you to touch their private parts (places you cover with your underwear)?

■ Has anyone ever touched your private parts?

If your child answers “yes” to any of these questions, follow up with some more specific questions: who, where, when, can you tell me about it, etc.

I am thankful for the many people in this town — teachers, coaches, youth workers — who invest their time and care in our children. Despite the way that the man at the center of this investigation may have broken trust with those around him, not all professionals are suspect. At the same time, if anything causes your intuition to kick in and to feel that something isn’t right, don’t hesitate to pursue those concerns with more questions. Child abuse is a crime, and any suspicions should be reported to law enforcement immediately.

Jason Clark serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Steamboat Springs and is the volunteer chaplain for the Routt County Sheriff’s Office.

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