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Child abuse is everybody’s problem

by Archives March 22, 2006

Last week, 27 people were arrested in a raid that targeted a web-based child pornography ring. Seven children have been identified as victims of the ring, the youngest of them only 18 months old.
Each time this type of crime receives media coverage, it draws attention to the way we deal with sex offences against children. The fact is, the problem exists not just on the internet or in isolated instances of porn production. It is systemic.
An estimated one in four girls and one in six boys will be the victim of some form of sexual abuse before they’re eighteen.
According to a 2006 report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, “more than 40 percent of convicted child molesters were sexually abused as children. They [tend] to choose victims close to the age at which they were first victimized.”
Considering the abhorrent nature and long-term consequences of sex-crimes committed against children, it is no wonder that we recoil in horror and disgust. But this very reaction further complicates the issue. So how do we rationally deal with an issue that affects us on such a visceral level? How do we prevent the crime and rehabilitate the criminals?
Rehabilitation requires rehabilitators, and of course money. Both are difficult to come by. In their absence, lawmakers have come up with ways to keep released offenders on a short leash.
One widely accepted prevention tool is the sex offender registry. The logic is that if individuals within a community know of an offender in their midst, they can try to protect their family from being victimized.
In Canada these registries are administered on a provincial level, with no cohesive national surveillance. While the registries are not generally made available to the public, many argue that they are subject to the same pitfalls as the public registries in the United States. The central weakness is that whether open to the public or not these registries create a false sense of security in a world where many perpetrators are never caught, slip through the cracks in the system, or are chased from one community to the next before disappearing completely.
In one Iowa community, vigilantism coupled with laws preventing convicted sex offenders from living in proximity of children or even visiting certain places has led to a kind of molesters’ ghetto, like the well known Ced-Rel motel outside Cedar Rapids where 26 sex offenders live.
In an even more extreme case, a judge in Texas ordered offenders to install lawn signs reading “Danger! Registered sex-offender lives here”. They were also ordered to affix the same message in bumper sticker form on their cars.
This is not only a questionable policy in terms of human rights, but it also seems counterproductive in light of research into child molestation patterns.
According to correction services of Canada, there is a direct correlation between recidivism rates and the individual’s access to support systems. Those who feel isolated are more likely to re-offend.
This highlights the necessity for intelligent, cohesive and ongoing treatment programs. Treatment must include things like social functioning training, therapy to overcome cognitive distortions that may induce sexually deviant behaviour, and impulse control, if it is to be successful in the long term. Unfortunately even these types of programs lack empirical data to support their effectiveness, partially due to high drop rates.
What can be done in light of the imperfect treatment system?
According to the Canadian Public Health Agency, we need to provide specialized training for health care providers, mental health workers, and legal professionals in order to ensure that there is greater understanding of the broad implications of childhood sexual abuse.
We need to educate children about what is appropriate and what is unacceptable behaviour on the part of adults. Families need to be supported by community and a social network that helps them to raise children in an atmosphere of trust and openness, where children feel safe to speak up if they are abused.
And finally we as a society need to speak up. Silence is the number one reason why child molestation continues. One of the ways we can all work to break the cycle of sexual abuse and exploitation is to talk about it.

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