A new strategy to prevent sexual abuse of children across Colorado is all about math.
The goal: 5% of the adult population in every ZIP code should know exactly how to respond if a child told them they were abused, and they should know how to cut down on the likelihood that abusers have access to children.
The child abuse prevention organization Illuminate Colorado recently launched a campaign to train 284,000 more Coloradans on how to recognize sexual abuse and what to do about it. Colorado so far has only about 7,800 adults who have been trained since Illuminate started the program a few years ago, but more than 150 people signed up within the first weekend of the public awareness campaign announced last month.
Step one in operation “Tip Colorado” was calling out counties on a public website. A map on the site shows the number of people each county needs to train to reach the goal, and how far they are from reaching the “tipping point.”
Training rates range from 0% in several counties to nearly 2.5% of the population — halfway to the goal — in a batch of counties on the Eastern Plains.
“When a community sees a tipping point, we start to see cultural change,” said Anne Auld, director of education for Illuminate Colorado.
The state legislature in 2018 set aside $250,000 per year in state funding to prevent child sexual abuse, distributed by Office of Early Childhood at the state Department of Human Services. With those funds, Illuminate offered free in-person or online training about once each week in English and Spanish.
The state funds, though, were stripped this year, one of many losses in the coronavirus-caused budget crisis. Now Illuminate is relying on grants and donations to keep up the training, which continued online during the pandemic.
The operation goes like this: Illuminate trains community facilitators who in turn train members of their own communities — everyone from teachers and coaches, parents to leaders of the 4-H club and anyone who will show up on community training night. So far, Colorado has 80 community facilitators training their local communities.
In a group of neighboring counties on the Eastern Plains, local facilitators have trained employees at the parks and recreation department, church groups, 4-H leaders, schools and parents. Kiowa and Cheyenne counties are halfway to their “tipping point.” The goal for Kiowa County is 69 people, for example, or 5% of the rural county’s population. The four-county region has about 300 people who’ve completed the training.
“This is a very bold undertaking,” said Lisa Thomas, who works at the Kiowa County Public Health Department and is the collaborative management coordinator for Kiowa, Cheyenne, Baca and Prowers counties. “I did the math for my counties and I thought, ‘We can do this. I can train 100 people!”
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When a county can meet a certain threshold of trained adults, the entire conversation around child sexual abuse is elevated, Thomas said. “And when we have those conversations, that’s when we start to make change,” she said. “The conversations are not comfortable.”
Not everyone is eager to sign up or host a workshop on child sexual abuse, she said, describing the difficulty in getting some community groups or schools to participate. “It’s kind of a big lift — ‘Hey, we’ve got this child sexual abuse training we’d like to bring to your school,’” she said.
The training lasts about two hours, and before the pandemic, it often happened in person and included a break for lunch or dinner, which was funded by Illuminate, with help from the Colorado Children’s Trust Fund at the state human services department. Because of coronavirus, the training now happens via the video conferencing program Zoom. People can sign up through Illuminate, based in Denver, or through their local community organizer.
Community trainers are often people who work for a local child advocacy agency or domestic violence prevention program, but they also include everyday citizens who are retired or work in industries that have nothing to do with children.
During the two hours, participants follow along in a workbook as they learn about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, how to protect children by teaching them proper words for their anatomy and how exactly to make a report of suspected abuse to the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline.
The class begins with a jolt. Everyone is asked to write the names of 10 children they know. Then the trainer tells them one in 10 children in the United States is sexually abused before the age of 18.
Attendees learn that 90% of the time, a sexual abuser is known to the family — a relative, sibling, neighbor, coach or religious leader. They learn how to respond if a child tells them they are being abused: Listen empathetically, don’t say you don’t believe them, and don’t make promises you can’t keep, as in, “I’m going to get that SOB,” Thomas advised.
The course also includes prevention strategies specific to schools and child care centers about how to eliminate opportunity for abusers to be alone with a child — by blocking off rooms or hallways, for example.
And it instructs parents about the importance of teaching children the actual names of their body parts, not made-up names. In a particularly graphic example, some trainers tell the story of a child who told her teacher that her father “ate my cookie.” The teacher responded by telling the girl to go sit down for storytime but found out weeks later that the girl was trying to tell her she was sexually abused in the only words she knew to describe what happened to her.
Training in sexual abuse prevention has evolved from a generation ago, when most of the burden to report sexual abuse was on children. Prevention campaigns focused on teaching children to tell an adult if someone touched them on a part of their body that their “bathing suit covers.”
Prevention programs for adults targeted parents, not the community at large.
“There is a greater recognition of an adult’s responsibility to prevent child sexual abuse,” Auld said. “We aren’t just talking to children about what they need to do to stop an abuser or how they need to tell a trusted adult if they do experience abuse. We’re talking to adults, and not just parents, about their responsibility to create safe spaces for kids.”
A few decades ago, people thought sexual predators were most often the “creepy guy” who was a stranger, a man prowling in a van. But research has not only found that the vast majority of abusers are known to children, but that abusers also include women and older children.
Trainees are told that their report to the child abuse hotline is confidential, which is true with some caveats.
The person who answers the hotline call will ask for the caller’s name and contact information. And while a child welfare worker who knocks on a family’s door to investigate a report will not inform the family who made that report, it’s possible that law enforcement authorities might at some point ask that original reporter to provide testimony.
The number of calls to the hotline to report suspected child sexual abuse has climbed each year since 2015, to 3,626 last year. The number of those calls that were substantiated as sexual abuse also increased — to 1,071 last year compared with 894 in 2015.
So far this year, however, the hotline has seen a drastic drop in all calls as families have been isolated during the pandemic.
The training program, called Darkness to Light Stewards of Children, is used nationwide and is spearheaded by various child advocacy agencies across the states.
Training 7,800 Coloradans so far has been “no small feat, but it is a far cry from reaching the necessary critical milestone in child protection that we need to effectively prevent child sexual abuse in Colorado,” Auld said.
“Reaching the threshold of educating 5% of adults in a community is important because that is the point when we will start to see a shift in community norms and behavioral shifts at home and at work necessary to prevent child sexual abuse,” Auld said.