Vickroy: Help the helpers stop child sexual abuse
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy April 8, 2013 4:40PM
Heather Randazzo, Program Coordinator for the Child Abuse Prevention Program, stands outside a therapy room at the Childhood Trauma Treatment Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Thursday, April 4, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Helping the helpers
The Childhood Trauma Treatment Program relies on funding from United Way and local fundraising efforts. On April 13, it will host the 16th Annual Start Early Run to raise awareness and generate funds. The public can help by participating or donating directly.
Officials said 100 percent of donations go to support the program, which has been providing specialized psychological services to the community for more than 30 years.
For more information, visit www.advocatehealth.com/cttp
Updated: April 16, 2013 11:37AM
Here are some alarming numbers: 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused during childhood. The average age of the victims: 9.
“This is a social epidemic and a real tragedy,” said Heather Randazzo, program coordinator for the Childhood Trauma Treatment Program run by Advocate Health Care. “A tremendous number of people experience abuse and don’t come forward.
“It’s like slavery,” she said. “We all have to do something in order to end it.”
That something begins with increased awareness, and what better time to consider this than during National Child Abuse Prevention month.
In addition to evaluating and treating children who have been abused, the program, with offices in Oak Lawn and Bolingbrook, sponsors workshops aimed at helping adults help children.
It has just trained its 1,000th adult in the Stewards of Children community outreach program. As a result, more than 10,000 children are now better protected from sexual abuse, Randazzo said.
“While that sounds like a lot, consider that there are 30,000 kids in the Valley View school district alone,” she said of the Romeoville-based district.
The Stewards of Children workshops train adults across Cook, DuPage and Will counties to learn the signs, symptoms and tools to recognize, react responsibly and prevent child sexual abuse.
“Our focus is to reach as many people as possible,” Randazzo said.
They visit adults who run schools, park districts, churches and other groups that cater to children, although any grown-up is welcome to attend a workshop. The 21/2-hour sessions can hold five to 25 people at a time.
“These are people who have a heart for children in their community and who understand the need to protect them,” Randazzo said. “It’s a tough issue and a taboo topic, but the real tragedy is to ignore it.”
One such workshop was held last fall at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School.
School counselor Kathy Stangel called it “one of the most impactful workshops ever.”
In addition to learning the shocking statistics, Stangel said, the group was told an awful truth: that most abusers are people who are trusted to be alone with kids.
“Abusers know how to work their way into a family, to build trust,” Randazzo said. “They look for opportunities where children are left alone, or where parents are not paying attention.”
The attendees also were told to call police or the Department of Children and Family Services if they suspect abuse.
“It’s important for everyone to know that abuse can happen anywhere, even in the nicest neighborhoods,” Stangel said.
Every time we hear about a case of child sexual abuse, a universal cry of horror goes out.
And then the questions begin. Why do some children end up becoming victims? What can a parent or guardian do to lessen a child’s vulnerability?
While the symptoms of sexual abuse are myriad, with the damage occurring both physically and psychologically, the methods for stopping or preventing it are not, Randazzo said.
Open lines of communication and an understanding of what is acceptable behavior and what is not are two solid ways to reduce the likelihood abuse will occur. In addition, she said, adults need to take notice of any sudden changes in a child’s behavior.
If Johnny comes home from a Scout meeting especially moody, or if he suddenly doesn’t want to go to school anymore, Randazzo said it’s time to start asking questions.
She recalled one case in which a busy mom had asked a baseball coach to drive her son home from practice. After that ride, the boy no longer wanted to play baseball. Further investigating revealed that the coach had suggested behaviors that made the child uncomfortable. Fortunately, the child told his mom about it before things escalated.
Don’t expect a threatened child to act in any particular way, Randazzo pointed out. Sometimes children who feel threatened misbehave but sometimes they suddenly become perfectionists, hoping their good behavior will put a stop to an adult’s inappropriate advances, she said.
“You have to observe the changes, you have to find out what’s causing the changes, what’s going on when you aren’t around,” she said. “You have to make sure your child understands that no one is allowed to touch him inappropriately, and he has to understand what that means.”
The children who are least vulnerable are the ones who have proactive parents, parents who are involved, who ask questions, who observe and who talk with other parents.
“Kids who don’t get a lot of attention from their parents are more easily groomed to be victimized,” she said. “If you have a strong relationship with your child and if you talk openly with him and don’t force him to kiss or touch others, even relatives, they will be more likely to uphold those expectations.”
Equally important, she said, “If you suspect something is wrong, you have to do something about it.”
Many times adults just want the issue to go away, especially if the suspect is a figure of authority.
“You have to remember that certain behavior is inappropriate, regardless of who is doing it,” Randazzo said. “We tend to trust people by the hat that they wear.”
But, she added, an abuser’s goal is to fool adults into trusting him or her.
“Don’t trust somebody simply because of the role they play in your child’s life,” Randazzo said.
If worse comes to worst and abuse is discovered, Randazzo said, it’s important to know that victims can survive and, with effective treatment, go on to thrive.
In addition to coordinating the outreach program, Randazzo is an art therapist. She is also an adjunct professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology.
“These kids are strong,” she said. “When you go through something terrible and make it to the other side, you’re strong.”