Expert: Child sex abuse an ‘epidemic’
BELVIDERE — Last week’s arrest of a Belvidere North High School teacher charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual assault shined light on a crime often referred to as “the silent epidemic.”
The crime is silent, in part, because nearly three out of four children or 73 percent of the victims do not tell anyone about the abuse for at least one year, while many never say anything at all, said Darkness to Light President and CEO Jolie Logan.
It’s also an epidemic in part because child sexual abuse ranks second to homicide as the most expensive victim crime in the U.S., where immediate and long-term costs exceed $35 billion annually, according to the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse & Neglect. The study is a congressionally mandated periodic research to assess the incidence of child abuse and neglect in the United States.
Cathy Townsend of Darkness to Light said educating adults about the steps they can take to prevent, recognize and react to child sexual abuse is the mission of the Charleston, S.C.-based non-profit.
Darkness to Light has provided training to more than 30,000 of South Carolina’s 54,000 teachers. School districts in the state are recognized as some of the country’s most progressive in preventing child sex abuse.
Jenee A. Blackert, 30, of Poplar Grove was charged Thursday with four counts of criminal sexual assault. It marks the second time in six years a Belvidere School District teacher has been charged with a sexual crime involving a student.
School District Superintendent Michael Houselog said all complaints of sexual abuse are taken seriously and investigated by school officials and, if necessary, law enforcement.
“Our students have not been bashful in reporting,” he said. “When kids are made to feel uncomfortable, we follow up on it.”
Townsend said one of the best steps a school district can take to prevent child abuse by a teacher is eliminate the opportunity for it by limiting one-on-one encounters.
She said a code of conduct should specify where and when a teacher can touch a child.
“A pat on the shoulder, a high-five? Fine. A pat on the butt? No.”
She also said a child should never ride alone with a teacher.
Red flags or precursors to child sex abuse include signs of “grooming.”
“Showing increasing affection to a child, patting and then hugging, gift giving. The child loses sense of where the boundaries lie,” Townsend said. “When the offender makes their move, the student often thinks, ‘Oh. I owe it to him.’”
Townsend said families also can be groomed.
“The teacher will baby-sit a child, take the child to a ball game. Parents are often honored that a teacher is taking extra time and attention with their child.”
While parents are left feeling betrayed upon learning their child was abused by a teacher, Townsend said the short- and long-term effects on the child can include changes in behavior, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and alcoholism.
According to Darkness to Light, in 95 percent of all child sexual abuse cases, the offender is someone the child knows and trusts.
Chris Green: 815-987-1241;firstname.lastname@example.org; @chrisfgreen
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