Article I was asked to write about the prevention of child sexual abuse based on my 10 year experience in Iceland.
I am the co-founder of a prominent NGO in Iceland, Blátt áfram, (pronounced: bl-ow-t ow-frum) which translates as “Straight Forward,” and is the leading grass roots child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention organization in Iceland. Blátt áfram (or BA) was formed in 2004 by me and my twin sister, Sigga Bjornsdottir. We were sexually abused as young children growing up in Iceland but sought to turn around our misfortune by helping others.
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse from the hands of my stepfather. I tried to tell someone of the abuse as a child but I was not heard or rescued out of my home. The abuse I suffered caused me much suffering as a teen and as a young woman. I was fortunate enough to seek therapy and after some healing, I realized the tremendous shame that I carried from not being able to talk about what had happened to me as a child. I also recognized that the abuse was never my fault and I may not have suffered as long as I did had the adults around me been educated about CSA and had given me the words I needed to ask for help. With that knowledge, I set out to educate the adults of Iceland hoping that perhaps it would prevent children from suffering the way I did. I believed that because of my own suffering, I could bring something good to others.
Blátt áfram was founded with the mission of providing adults with awareness and education of the issue of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. The goal was to help adults understand the power of prevention and take responsibility for keeping kids safe.
The organization has played a significant role in changing the public’s awareness of this issue, which in the past had received minimal attention. It is also the only national organization that focuses solely on providing education on the prevention of child sexual abuse in Iceland.
In Iceland, like in other countries of the world, most adults that work with children do so out of their commitment and passion for providing what is best for kids. What is missing however is the training and education on how to respond to suspicion of abuse, how to respond to disclosure of abuse, and who to turn to for reporting.
In the beginning, Blátt áfram built on the experience provided by Darkness to Light, a NGO dedicated to CSA prevention, to create awareness by providing information to the public using the media. We created a number of public service announcements (PSA’s) that have been instrumental in awareness building, of public understanding of the issue, and the importance of adults communicating about child sexual abuse, with other adults and children. Another benefit, one that we had not considered in the beginning using PSA´s, is that this information has reached the eyes and ears of survivors that have recognized that this is what they have been through and as a result, have asked for help. BA has been contacted by a number of parents that express their gratitude and have said that we gave their child a way to ask for help simply by pointing at the television screen and saying, “Mom, that is what so and so is doing to me.”
BA began by mailing the Darkness to Light 7 steps booklet, a guide for responsible adults for protecting children, to every single home in the country. The goal was to help adults to start talking about child sexual abuse. The hope was also that perhaps this booklet would serve as a tool for those kids that did not know how to talk about this or how to ask for help because they did not understand what was happening to them. Our hopes were that by getting this booklet in the mail, victims would see that they were not alone and perhaps they would find a way to ask for help.
Soon after mailing of the booklet to 110 thousands homes in Iceland, I started getting phone calls. The callers would share how much they appreciate the booklet and started looking into getting more education about the topic but found very little was available.
That was the beginning of my public speaking career on the issue of child sexual abuse. BÁ now routinely provides presentations and lectures on CSA and prevention for professionals and parents. Adults that work with or provide services to children in Iceland are the largest group that BA educates. All those professions, administrators, teachers, preschool staff, and sports clubs are mandated reporters but experience has shown lack training and support in following through with reporting when suspecting abuse. Since 2006, BA has also provided the evidence based training Stewards of Children, that was translated into Icelandic.
In addition to adult education, BA has created a life skills course for teenagers about the issue of child sexual abuse. The presentation is gender specific and focuses on understanding what CSA is and who the offenders are. Based on statistics, we know that in every classroom we are talking to kids that are or have been abused. Our hope is to give them the safety, courage, and the language to ask for help. We share our personal stories of abuse but most importantly, we share how much we benefitted from finding help and encourage them to not give up on telling a safe person. Over the years this program has resulted in numerous disclosures, averaging about 10%. More importantly, teens learn about boundaries, healthy relationships, and it gives these kids a forum to share if they feel uncomfortable about a teacher or staff at the school. This program is provided in close partnership with the school administrators and school counselors. These are the adults at the school that know the students better than we do and students feel comfortable talking to after we leave.
The most disturbing trend we saw, even though not surprising, was that most of the girls that disclosed to us were describing some form of CSA abuse or rape, and they were unsure of themselves and their feelings about it. My sister and I understand how that can be but it reinforced our belief in the need for this program. A Darkness to Light statistic tell us that 90% of kids that are abused know and trust the offender. After the long grooming process, by the time the physical touch or the assault happens, boundaries are very blurred and confusing since the offender is usually someone that they know and trust.
The most difficult experience I had while providing this program was after talking to a group of girls at a small town school outside of Reykjavík. After the program, I received an email from a teenager girl disclosing abuse from the hands of her grandfather. She said the abuse was still happening but she was not ready to tell anyone about it. She did not disclose her name or anything that would help me to identify her but she shared how much she appreciated that I shared my story. She now knew that she was not alone and I gave her hope that in the future, with some help, she would be ok. I kept encouraging her to reach out to trusted adults and get help. I even tried to track her down through her school and administrators but we could not identify her. This young woman did email me a few times over the next few months and I was glad that at least she had someone. Someone that she could talk to that understood her. It was hard and I have often thought about her and what became of her.
Another program that BA provides is the Kids on the Block puppet show. Kids on the Block, which started in Maryland, provide educational programs on a variety of social issues. I choose the physical and sexual abuse presentation to bring to Iceland. BA partnered with professional puppeteers to provide the program. The Kids on the Block program is available to children age 6 – 12 and is provided to them at school. Up until this year, the program was funded by the schools that saw the value in providing this education for their kids. This year the government of Iceland, led by four ministries, partnered up with BA and the puppet masters to provide the child sexual abuse prevention program to all 7 year olds in Iceland over the next 3 years. This partnership is a part of a European initiative and a mandate to fund further education to protect kids from child sexual abuse.
The third program BA has available for children is a cartoon created for kids that explains the difference between secrets and surprises. This cartoon was created by a NGO, Réttindi Barna, dedicated to educating children about their rights. This cartoon, and an information handout, is provided free of charge to all schools in Iceland to show to 3rd graders. The cartoon, only in Icelandic, is also available over the internet for parents to use as a tool to educate their children.
Some schools have favored our programs more than others. A handful of schools from the very beginning, received education for teachers and staff, then for the teens and kids. Some of the communities have included awareness education for the parents of that community. My favorite presentations have been when both parents and teachers come together to learn and recognize how they can work towards the common goal of child protection. On the other hand, one of the toughest presentations that I provided was to an audience of parents and teachers at a school community that had suffered through abuse of a few children in that community. It was a powerful and timely dialog and even though it got a little heated and emotional. In the end they all agreed that getting educated together was the best thing for them because they needed to be on the same team for the sake of the kids they all were working with.
Child sexual abuse is a devastating issue. It takes a huge toll and the impacts are far reaching:
· 60% of first teen pregnancies are preceded by an incident of child sexual abuse.
· Young girls who are sexually abused are 3 times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders and/or substance abuse problems in adulthood than girls who are not sexually abused.
· Male survivors of child sexual abuse are 70% more likely to seek psychological treatment for issues such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide.
--Darkness to Light
When adults that work with children understand the devastation of CSA, the signs of abuse, how to respond to disclosures, and how important it is to report to the authorities, we have found that it gives them the courage they need to follow through with reporting.
In the early days of BA, it was noted how few reports on CSA came from preschools and youth serving organizations. That now has changed. The director of the child protection agency in Iceland opened our annual prevention conference in 2009 and stated that Blátt áfram provided the only prevention education dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse in Iceland and is the direct reason for the increase of reporting of child sexual abuse. In 2007, the child protection agency of Iceland saw a 40% increase in reports because of suspicions of child sexual abuse. --Á Mannamáli. Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir, p. 230
In addition what we have learned from providing prevention education is the positive effects it has had on kids. We have learned of numerous cases of disclosure by a child because the child had learned how to tell and ask for help. What we also hear from the children’s advocacy center and DA´s office is that educating children about CSA makes them better at explaining in court what happened to them. A handful of parents have also contacted BA thanking us for giving this life saving information to their children.
Our focus continues to be towards educating adults about prevention and the responsibility adults have to keep kids safe, but we quickly recognized a greater need for tools or program like the teen life skills class or the puppet show to help adults understand how children communicate about the issue of child sexual abuse, and to give kids the language skills they need to ask for help.
Both programs have had the result of more children and adolescents coming forward and numerous cases of sexual violence being exposed. Both programs, not always popular in the beginning, came to be because of courageous adults that work with children that saw the need to empower the kids they worked with to know that there are ways to get help.
How to prevent child sexual abuse is not complicated. What is complicated is getting the information about how to prevent it into the hands, minds, and hearts of the people that can and have the authority to do something about it.
Why is it so challenging to get this life saving information to adults? After eight years of educating adults and teens about this issue in Iceland (my home country) and now in the U.S., I have come to believe that there are two reasons.
The first reason is that CSA is an issue covered up because of shame and secrecy. Most adults do not know how prevalent CSA is or how it happens and thus providers and parents alike think they don’t need to know about it. Many will say that they don’t need it. School administrators and program directors have told me that they would never associate with “that” kind of people and that they only serve “good” families.
The other reason is that too many of us have personal experiences with the issue of child sexual abuse and would rather not be reminded of that. Either we know someone personally that is or was a victim of sexual abuse, or we ourselves were victims and because of our own unresolved issue with it, we cannot fathom talking about it in public.
How is it that we expect and assume children will tell us about CSA if it happens, when adults are uncomfortable and unwilling to discuss it?
Youth serving organizations and adults that work with children need to understand and accept responsibility for the unintended consequence for providing services to children and youth. Just like any risk that needs to be assessed for insurance requirements, depending on the services being provided, assessing the risk for CSA needs to become common sense.
The focus needs to be on the adult’s responsibility to keep kids safe from sexual violence. Youth serving organizations need to accept the responsibility, the risk that comes with providing services to children and understand that CSA takes place because of the power differential between the offender and the child. It is that power offenders depend on for secrecy, to continue with the abuse. Updating policy should be a priority, to provide strict rules around interacting with kids inside and outside of the program. According to Carla Van Dam, the group with the highest offender rates are teachers. PE teachers and then music teachers. –Carla Van Dam 2006.
Rules must be consistent, include strict guidelines for interacting with children and policy violations are decided before an issue arises. This is especially important for organizations that utilize young adult program leaders. Training becomes important and enforcement of breaking the rules.
For organizations that include in the mission statement and model through all their programs the goals and the priority to keep kids safe, will be deterring anyone that is seeking unsuspecting organization to gain access to children from seeking employment.
Too many organizations are not willing to consider the risk that a child molester will try to work for you, to use your organization to either abuse the children in your care or use your organization to gain access to those children and their families.
We don’t have to look far back into history for examples of this: Sandusky with Penn State, Boys Scouts, the Catholic Church, the list goes on. If you search through the internet for cases of CSA you will quickly learn the roles that offenders serve in the child’s life or what kind of access they had to that child. You will see that they are helpful adults that work with children. They are usually the most outstanding citizen’s and work for us as teachers, coaches, mentors, tutors, babysitters, nannies, bus drivers, clergy, or nurses. A statistic from Darkness to Light tells us that 80% of abuse takes place when a child is a left alone with an adult or older more powerful child.
What do all these roles have in common? They usually require the permission and knowledge of the parent to spend time with their child. But most organizational leaders and parents lack the understanding or the courage to ask and enforce rules that minimize or eliminate one-on- one child/adult situations with their children.
Understanding how and where these individuals find access to children will change how you interact with any adults that provide services to your children. We may not be able to eliminate all one-on-one situations but we can do more to make sure that those adults are safe adults and that the interaction is in a public place or is observable by others.
It becomes dangerous when a youth organization or administrators refuse to even consider that there is a risk. They have to realize that without a specific CSA policy on hiring, screening, monitoring and rules or code of conduct for all that work with and around youth, they are putting children at risk.
“The frequency and circumstances surrounding child sexual abuse is only recently being understood. Parents and organizations must be united, creative and caring to prevent it. It means being determined to ask questions and require protection even when it feels uncomfortable. It means being a voice for children’s safety because it matters for a lifetime. “ ~ Darkness to Light
When you think about prevention, what comes to mind? Stopping abuse, right? When I talk about prevention education to adults, they start asking questions about intervention such “What are the signs of abuse?” or “How do I respond to disclosure?” These are important questions but they fall under the category of secondary prevention. BA provides primary and secondary prevention.
In order to help people understand primary prevention I like to share the following story with them:
“One day, a fisherman was fishing from a river bank when he saw someone being swept downstream, struggling to keep their head above water. The fisherman jumped in, grabbed the person, and helped them to shore. The survivor thanked the fisherman and left, and the hero dried himself off and continued fishing. Soon he heard another cry for help and saw someone else being swept downstream. He immediately jumped into the river again and saved that person as well. This scenario continued all afternoon. As soon as the fisherman returned to fishing, he would hear another cry for help and would wade in to rescue another wet and drowning person. Finally, the fisherman said to himself, “I can’t go on like this. I’d better go upstream and find out what is happening.”
This public health analogy of “moving upstream” to prevent tragedies from occurring “downstream” is taught in many public health courses and is relevant for our dialogue on sexual violence prevention. It is presented as a catalyst for discussion and to convey how important it is to have strong teams along the river building safe passages.“ The Centers for Disease Control or CDC. Document SVPrevention-a.pdf
Below is the outline of the impact of prevention education, what happens when schools or organizations start to learn about prevention. I call it the natural evolution of prevention.
After organizations and schools receive prevention education, they report to us the relief they feel because they have learned how to talk about it and knowing that there is something that they can do to prevent it. The next step is usually that schools ask BA to come educate the kids. Often schools have targeted 7th graders for our teen program and the 3rd graders for our puppet show and we provide that program every year.
After we have provided the 2 hour interactive presentation for the adults and educated the kids, the school recognizes the need to learn more. At this point, the awareness is present and communication has been established. We found that many people appreciated the initial program but that for some people, because of their personal fears with the topic, needed more practice talking about it to understand prevention. After receiving the 3 hour program, the school or institution recognizes that they need to update their policy and procedures. BA will provide sample policies for schools and suggestions for rules to include. One preschool in Reykjavik created one such policy that was shared with other preschools and as a result received an award for that project.
Blátt Áfram has received a few awards as well, the most recent from the City of Reykjavík for our commitment to fighting for human rights. This award was especially meaningful to us because the voters were the general public. BA was built on and by people that saw the need for change and then found ways to do so. This from the beginning has been supported by the public. BA runs on donations from private businesses, individuals, and a shrinking contribution from the government. For BA the greatest amount of time is spent raising money for our day-to-day operations and our annual PSA campaign. Over the last three years, we have held national fundraisers that have been successful both in raising funds and creating awareness, but we are still challenged to grow our organization and our message.
I believe that we have created a powerful model for prevention that can easily be duplicated in other communities or other countries. In a small country of 320,000 people, we have created partnerships with institutions and organizations that want what is best for kids and understand the power of prevention. With multi-layer approach to prevention and intention to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, we have seen positive change in adults and powerful changes in how they do business.
My passion for educating adults about prevention leads me to come up with new creative ways to get the message out. My latest venture is using the internet, providing on-line webinars. From the comfort of their home, adults can register for a one hour presentation that helps them start the dialog with other adults about what it takes to keep kids safe and teaches them how to talk to their kids to help them stay safe. It has been very exciting and in the first few months now, I have connected with people from other countries such as India, Sweden and of course Iceland and the U.S.
I hope that I have given you some insight into how it is possible to educate adults and kids about child sexual abuse to prevent it from happening. It is all about providing information, understanding the risk, and then doing something about minimizing that risk to prevent abuse. In my future columns, in order to teach you, I will address the specifics of all these issues of child sexual abuse.
Please join me in spreading the message of the power of prevention. I will continue to write about CSA and prevention here in this column in the coming months and what we can do to end the cycle of violence in our communities. I want you to know that in order for me to do this, I need you. We need each other. Just like the abuse of one child impacts the whole community that child lives in, so does the impact of prevention. Please let me know if you have a concern or a solution that I can write about in this column. We are all connected, and we are stronger together.
To learn more about Svava Brooks and her programs please visit educate4change.com
A certified facilitator and instructor for Darkness to Light Stewards of Children training and has created programs for adults and teens to learn about the prevention of CSA. The founder of Educate4Change dedicated to the awareness and education for the prevention of child sexual abuse. Svava Brooks is a survivor herself and uses her own childhood experience of growing up in an abusive home suffering both physical and sexual abuse to educate others and hopes to encourage parents to educate their kids and organizations to plan for preventing offenders to use their organizations to access vulnerable children.
Svava Brooks has given lectures to, high-level government committees, universities & colleges, various conferences, high schools, middle schools, pre-schools (including teachers, staff and students), PTO´s and teacher workshops. Additionally, Svava has been featured many times on television and radio as well as magazine and newspaper interviews. Her writing has been included in major legislation for the city of Reykjavík, Iceland.
Copyrights © 2013 Svava Brooks