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Children and Sexual Assault
The ideal of childhood as a time of beauty and innocence is too often marred. A home environment where sexual assault occurs and exposure to sexual abuse leave life-long impressions. Children who live through these events may have an array of emotional, psychological and developmental responses well into adulthood.
“Whoever saves one life is considered as if he has saved an entire world.”
– Sanhedrin 4:5
Sexual assault and abuse happen in every community. For some, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that Jewish children witness and fall victim to offences in similar degree to the broader population. Statistics tell us 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys encounter sexual abuse during childhood.
How a Jewish a community cares for children determines the wellbeing of all its members. Collectively, our response to sexual assault, abuse and their harmful effects needs to include greater awareness and lasting change.
Contact JTAFV for in-school education programs or information about sexual assault and abuse.
Sexual Abuse of Children
Child sexual abuse is a serious offence that happens in families, communities and religions across every country of the world. The overwhelming majority of children are abused by a family member, friend, neighbour or someone they trust.
It is abuse to involve a child or adolescent in any sexual activity, including:
- Sexual fondling
- Sexual exhibitionism (eg. flashing)
- Viewing pornography
In any case of sexual abuse, the child is innocent. They do not bring the abuse on themselves and are not responsible for the actions of the abuser. Children in this situation need understanding, help and support. Most of all, they need to be believed.
Children’s Tell-tale responses
All children learn what they live. Research has found that certain environmental factors may leave children more vulnerable to development of concerning and age-inappropriate sexual behaviour. Living with Family Violence and over-exposure to sexual activity create the highest risk.
Children may have trouble interpreting events and expressing what has happened. Children often lack the words to describe what was done to them. It is important to remember children rarely lie about sexual abuse. If a child makes a disclosure, it is imperative they be taken seriously.
When children disclose, many adults initially react awkwardly. Shock, distress or disbelief this could be happening are common adult responses that can lead children to blame themselves.
Whether or not the child tells they have been abused themselves, witnessed someone else being assaulted or been exposed to pornography, their likely reactions include:
- Heightened anxiety levels
- Nervous response to specific visitors
- Secrecy and concealment
- Unable to trust in self or others
- Invading personal boundaries
- Feeling incompetent or powerless
- Distorted view of normality
- Withdrawal or isolation from others
- Hostility and aggression towards others
- Poor ability to focus and concentrate
- Sudden and mysterious drop in school grades
- Drawings that include oversized genitalia
- Acting out sexual assault or abuse events
- Increasingly sexualised behaviour
- Making age-inappropriate sexual gestures and comments
- Engaging in age-inappropriate sexual behaviour
- Overly anxious to please and be “good” (eg. abruptly studious)
- Regressive behaviour (eg. bed wetting)
- Onset of unexplained chronic pain (eg. persistent tummy ache)
- Avoiding places they were comfortable before (eg. swimming lessons, friend’s home)
- Dressing in many layers to cover the body, even in warm weather
According to Isaac (Yitzchak) Schechter, PsyD*, childhood sexual abuse survivors have a higher rate of developing serious mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety and depression
- Anorexia and Bulimia
- Bi polar disorder
- Twice as likely to suicide
Supporting Children of Sexual Assault
Enabling children to tell their stories about sexual assault or abuse is a vital step to understanding the experience. Most children don’t tell the whole story and what they do say might not be structured or detailed.
Make time available for children to talk when they are ready. This is time for patience, to speak with empathy and encourage conversation.
- Reiterate that what happened is not the child’s fault.
- Avoid using Why? or questions that persuade the child to interpret events.
- Exploring some of the child’s fears and anxieties can be most useful.
- Say and reinforce that you believe what they are telling you.
Be careful to manage your own reactions. You may feel anger or disgust that a child can interpret as directed at them. It is important that you express your unconditional love and support. During the discussion, avoid making any judgements and affirm the child’s value and personal strength with positive reassurance.
This is a very traumatic time for all involved. You may be unsure about what the next step should be. There are several support services to assist you such as CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault) in your local area and SOCIT (Victoria Police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams).
If you are unsure of who to contact, call the Jewish Taskforce Support Line for information and referrals. Or see Links and Where to Get Help for services providers in your area.
The new ‘failure to disclose’ offence
Reporting child sexual abuse is a community-wide responsibility. Accordingly, a new criminal offence has been created in Victoria that imposes a clear legal duty upon all adults to report information about child sexual abuse to police.
Any adult who forms a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed by an adult against a child under 16 has an obligation to report that information to police. Failure to disclose the information to police is a criminal offence.
*Dr. Schechter is a recognized leader in emotional and behavioural health care for children and adolescents.