Psychotherapist Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse –Vermont, explains why people are “shocked” by her state’s large number of documented child sexual abuse cases and what may be behind a dramatic 60 percent drop in CSA cases there since 1992. And while juveniles are estimated to account for half of CSAs nationwide, Johnson says Vermont has seen a one-third decline in juvenile sex offenders since 2006.
Vermont had 322 cases of child sexual abuse in 2007, compared with 57 cases of neglect. That’s very different from most states. Why?
In 1992 we realized that child sexual abuse was the number one form of substantiated child abuse in our state. Our way of tracking CSA is unusual: We count every case, even if it will ultimately go through the criminal justice system.
When you look at child abuse statistics across the country, the preponderance is neglect. The rest is physical abuse and a tiny percentage is sexual abuse. So when people look at Vermont’s number they’re shocked. But it’s not shocking. Other states just don’t have the published numbers. (See Vermont data on pages 14 and 16 of the 2007 Child Abuse and Neglect Report. David Finkelhor is a recommended source for discussing problems in state data comparisons.)
What do the data tell you about the risk of abuse?
It isn’t stranger danger. Last year we had 100 abducted kids in the U.S., and there are millions of kids. Vermont had 322 child sexual abuse victims in 2007. We only have 660,000 people.
It’s just invisible. A board member pointed out there is so much more CSA than breast cancer. But think of those pink ribbons. If people who had been sexually abused had spots instead of ribbons, you could not go anywhere without being surrounded by people with spots: You’d see them on 25 percent of females and 20 percent of males. I actually wonder if [CSA] is more prevalent in males than females. Boys just don’t tell as easily.
Even though Vermont’s CSA numbers are high, they’ve been going down...
We have all the numbers of substantiated CSA in our system, but our [offenses] are down 60 percent since 1992. The rest of the country has seen declines too. But it’s down so much in Vermont because of the kind of prevention we’re doing, which includes young perpetrator prevention.We’re raising fewer children with sexual behavior problems. The number of [children] who offend is down one-third from 2006. [Johnson’s nonprofit provides training for professional child care workers and other adults around sexual abuse prevention, healthy sexual development, and supportive parenting, among other topics.]
Say a child care center wants training. How much does it cost?
It’s very inexpensive. A kit for a [child care] center is $200 -- one time. We come train 20 people or so and charge $1,500 for a two-day training. There’s also a parents’ meeting. It’s not scary stuff. But we train and train and train. We want to spread the information.
What was the impetus for focusing on middle schoolers?
There’s a risk and vulnerability of middle schoolers to offend and to be offended. About half of offenders are kids; child sexual abuse starts in adolescence. When we realized such a high percentage are middle-school kids, we decided to inoculate [target] children. Teaching empathy is critical -- if their parents don’t demonstrate it, you’re helping them develop a conscience.
Here’s an example. There was a kid in foster care. He was 12 ... his social worker was overwhelmed and the kid needed a place for the summer. An older cousin said he could sleep at her house. She had a 7 year old daughter. They were out playing in a corn field and he had sex with the girl. When she called out he suffocated her. He’d never been sexually abused – he was angry about his life. So he went to juvenile jail in Vermont and for the first time he had “parents.” He had structure. He ate his dinner, cleaned his room, got therapy. Now he’s almost 30. He’s married and the father of children. He’s a taxpayer. You want to reach kids before there’s a tragedy.
The middle school curriculum and your other programs have components for educating adults. Why is that so important?
It’s the nature of children to be dependent and to need to be protected.
Parents should know their children well and be able to talk to their children about anything so if there’s something confusing or disturbing they’ll come to them. Teach the child correct names for their anatomy so they can say what’s happening. An offender told us: “Show me a child who knows nothing about her body and I’ll show you my next victim.”
Interview conducted by Patrice Pascual, the Journalism Center's contributing editor and former executive director.