Melanie H. Blow was 13 years old and could not find the words to say that two of her relatives had sexually abused her.
She didn't tell anyone for more than a decade.
She has since made it her life’s work to stop other children from being abused.
"People need to realize how common this is," said Blow, a former Attica resident who is a top executive at the national Stop Abuse Campaign. "Every one of us has a role in preventing sexual abuse of children.”
The opening Wednesday of a one-year window for victims of child sex abuse to sue over old allegations brought a flood of accusations that had been hidden in Western New York for years. But Blow and others working to stop child sex abuse say it's still a problem today.
Parents, they say, should talk to their children and take other steps to protect them from abuse that include:
- Know what adults have access to your children, whether at a camp, community organization or anywhere else they may spend time. Parents should find out if the adults in charge have received training in how to spot predatory behavior. Ask if criminal background checks are conducted on workers.
- Difficult as it may be for some parents, they need to have frank discussions with their children on appropriate boundaries.
- Children should be told how to recognize inappropriate actions, resist them and report them.
In 2016 in America, 57,329 cases of sexual abuse of children were reported to Child Protective Services agencies, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In New York State, there were 2,087 cases.
These numbers, however, do not include the many cases of child sexual abuse that are not reported until after the victims are adults.
For instance, 21% of 17,337 adults surveyed from 1995 to 1997 said they were sexually abused as children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.
Many victims never tell a soul until decades later.
"Most victims can’t talk until they are very much adults," Blow said. "The perpetrators until now have been protected by the statute of limitations."
The passage this year of New York's Child Victims Act should help combat sexual abuse of children, according to Blow and others who advocate for children. In addition to the look-back window for suing over old allegations, it also allows new victims of abuse to seek criminal charges or civil lawsuits much farther into adulthood.
But child advocates are also working to educate parents, the public and lawmakers on how to prevent child sexual abuse and other abuses of children in the future.
They say there are patterns and behavior parents should watch for to protect their children.
Predators are formidable
According to the experts, child molesters are manipulative, discreet and cautious when initiating the grooming process to prey on their victims.
“They are master manipulators,” said Linda A. McCartan, director of family preservation services at Child & Family Services in Buffalo. “They don’t stand out in a crowd, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Predators often seek children they believe are vulnerable – youngsters who may not have a strong parental figure in their life or who are left alone while a single parent is working.
In addition, molesters often have an established relationship with their intended victims.
“Even though the child doesn’t like what has happened to them, the abuser is someone known to them and someone they care about,” McCartan said.
In 2018, 96% of the children who received assistance at BestSelf's Child Advocacy Center in Buffalo for sexual abuse were violated by an adult who was either “a friend or relative, or someone known to the child, such as a coach or a teacher,” said Rebecca Stevens, the center's director.
It is no coincidence that the percentage is high when it comes to adults already known to the children, according to Stevens.
"In order to have access to the child, you have to be trusted by the parent," Stevens said. "Parents aren’t going to let their children spend time with scary people. So these people look to get in the good graces of the parents."
Such circumstances can create difficulty in detecting molesters, but parents can be on the lookout for certain traits.
Ways to spot predators
Amherst Police Capt. Scott Chamberlin, who heads the department’s detective bureau, said a hallmark of child molesters is to drive a wedge between the child and the parent.
That can take the form of allowing a teenager to do things parents would not allow, Chamberlin said.
“The parents won’t let the child have a beer or listen to certain music, and they will. Or they will give gifts. That’s how they ingratiate themselves,” Chamberlin said. “They try to create a barrier between the parents and the children.”
The way to find out if this is happening, the captain said, is to have open lines of communication. That starts, he said, with a discussion between the parent and child about sexual abuse.
“Realize these aren’t comfortable conversations, but they are needed to protect children. Make the children aware of what these predators do,” Chamberlin said.
Predators also have other characteristics that can be spotted by alert parents, according to McCartan.
They will seek out activities that involve many children and break rules set up to protect youngsters.
“Perpetrators don’t generally think rules apply to them. For example, if you have protocols that involve an activity, such as two adults with children, and one of the adults takes a child off and then may later say, ‘I forgot about the rule’ or ‘It was just one time,’ ” McCartan said.
Molesters, she added, will also shrug off the chance to socialize with other adults when activities with children are completed and there is some grown-up time.
Touching a child is another telltale sign.
“They will often see how far they can push the limits with a child by touching them on the arm or back to see if you flinch. If the child doesn’t, they will push it a little bit further until it becomes intimate touching,” McCartan said.
A way to get ahead of these types of circumstances is to check out organizations before allowing a child to become a member, according to experts. Parents should ask what types of safeguards are in place to protect children.
Signs that abuse has happened
Parents not only need to be alert to predators, but also able to spot signs of when abuse may have occurred. Mental health experts say it can manifest itself in several ways:
- A dramatic change in a child’s behavior
- Bed wetting and soiling, especially after a toddler has successfully completed toilet training
- Children may say they do not feel comfortable around an individual. This can occur even before something happens.
If abuse is suspected, experts suggest parents take their child to a pediatrician for an examination. Police and mental health officials should also be contacted.
How to protect children
Experts offered these tips on what parents can do to protect their children:
- Know ahead of time what adults will have access to your children, whether it be at a camp, community organization or anywhere else the child may spend time.
- Ask if the adults with access to children received training in how to spot predatory behavior. Ask if criminal background checks are conducted on workers.
- Difficult as it may be for some, have a frank discussion with your children on appropriate boundaries. The discussion should include how it is wrong for an adult to touch a child's private parts. Instruct children to tell their parents or another responsible adult if this happens.
- Child molesters can be strangers. But far more often they are someone the child knows.
- Be wary of adults who allow teenagers to do things parents would not allow, like drink a beer.
- Watch out for adults who involve themselves in youth activities but sidestep rules set up to protect youngsters.
- If a child says he or she has been abused, contact police to investigate the claim and seek counseling for the child.