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The recent death of a lion in Africa at the hands of a Minnesota dentist brought an outpouring of grief, anger and calls for greater efforts to fight trophy hunting.

That furor over Cecil the Lion’s death in July resulted in a traditional and social media firestorm. It even prompted public statements from celebrities expressing outrage over the hunt that led to the death, eventually culminating in the dentist, Dr. Walter Palmer, temporarily closing his office in August.

The hullabaloo got Sherri Hunter, a clinical supervisor with Family & Children’s Services Child Abuse and Trauma Services program in Tulsa, thinking. And then she got mad.

“We have kids who are being sexually abused, who are being murdered, who are being beaten every single day in this country, and you don’t see people as outraged as you did with that lion,” Hunter said.

In fact, there is a general lack of awareness of child abuse that needs to change, said Allison Korvick, a therapist assigned to Hunter’s team.

Nationally, 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused, reports the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The rates are believed to be higher in Oklahoma, a state which, not coincidentally, ranks among the nation’s worst for child poverty, education achievement, nutrition, health care and other areas.

“I just don’t think we’re doing enough with prevention, generally, as a field, as educators, as a society,” Korvick said. “It’s just one of those things at which we go, ‘Yucky, uncomfortable, don’t like it, don’t want to talk about it.’”

F&CS provides parent group classes for child sexual abuse victims’ parents (if they didn’t commit the abuse, Hunter explained), in addition to therapy and treatment for the victims. The classes are almost always full.

“We have new clients who come in every single day,” Hunter said.

The class covers topics every parent should know, Korvick said. The problem is, by the time most of the families get to Family & Children’s Services class and therapists, the abuse has already taken place.

Regardless of when the parents seek help, Hunter and Korvick said the classes are critical for parents. Research has shown recently that child abuse victims are more likely to develop mental illnesses, substance habits or other behavioral and emotional issues later in life, in addition to becoming incarcerated. Therapy and parenting can make the difference.

Typically, the children’s families get in to the class as the result of being ordered to do so – either by a court or by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Hunter said.

A typical case, Hunter said, is a child has accused his or her mother’s boyfriend of molestation (at least 8 of 10 abuse victims know their abusers, Hunter said). DHS will get involved, and mom sometimes gets charged with failure to protect from harm, which is a felony.

The family is then put on a service plan, Hunter said, one which directs mom to attend the parent education group. Sometimes, the kids end up getting removed from the home.

“We see parents who’ve lost their kids and are working on getting them back,” Hunter said. “We also see parents who’ve been able to keep the child in the home because they maybe did take the right steps, but they still take this class to just get more information.”

The hourlong class meets for 12 weeks, 11 of which are education and processing. The final class meeting is a final exam of sorts, a review of the past 11 weeks and parents’ chance to show what they learned.

The bulk of the course’s material is learning how to communicate with kids about uncomfortable topics, such as how to talk to kids about protecting themselves, sexual predators and the things such people might do to “groom” kids for victimization, Korvick said.

Therapists also teach the parents to use actual terms for body parts instead of metaphors. Korvick said that always shocks when she says during class they should use words like “penis” and “vagina.” That helps children understand their body, as well as identify what area of the body they should protect.

“That’s something with which we often struggle with parents, but it’s something they need start to understand the importance of,” Hunter said.

The more parents have calm, matter-of-fact conversations about these issues, the more aware children will be and the less the topic will frighten them. Sexual abuse usually takes place in secrecy, and talking about it brings it out in the open, making it something that can be discussed and prevented.

Hunter uses the analogy of teaching children what to do when there’s a fire. Her parents worked with her on a plan of what to do when there was one.

“I was never concerned or scared or had trauma, thinking my house was going to burn down,” Hunter said. “I just knew what to do if something did happen.”

Regardless, greater conversation on the topic could help shift the daily media outrage machine away from the Cecil the Lions of the world toward a silent epidemic victimizing children at rates that go beyond what’s common knowledge.

The class (see info here) is open to any parent interested in attending. F&CS also offers 15 Family Life Education classes to help with a variety of issues, from relationships counseling to parenting. For more information, go to www.fcsok.org/classes, or call 918-587-9471.

 

Matt Elliott
Social and traditional media producer
Family & Children’s Services
650 S. Peoria Ave.
918-560-1141
melliott@fcsok.org