Breaking the Cycle
Preventing Sexual Abuse
An estimated one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, according to child abuse experts. In a statewide study conducted in 2011 by the University of Hawaii’s School of Social Work that examined community children and family conditions , it revealed that “Molokai needed to be worked on” in terms of protecting children from sexual abuse.
“Sexual abuse on this island is rampant. It’s the last big secret. Almost every single family has somebody who has been molested.” said one anonymous Molokai participant in the study.
In response, former Molokai police detective Gene Santiago joined with concerned community members in 2012 to create a project that prevents child sexual abuse on Molokai through the Consuelo Foundation, an organization working to prevent child neglect. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and Child & Family Service later partnered with the Consuelo Foundation to help effect positive family change in the community.
Together, they held a community discussion Friday to provide outreach and education about child sexual abuse on Molokai and project initiatives to prevent it.
Santiago said their project includes a kupuna group, which instills cultural values into Molokai’s youth, a men’s group that provides outreach and survivor healing, as well as a youth education program.
“Men are usually seen on the negative side as the perpetrators but also on the positive side as role models,” said Santiago, who runs the men’s group. “Tonight’s event comes from nine months of meetings because the men wanted to reach out to the community.”
The event, held at the Kaunakakai Baptist Church, included a discussion about sexual abuse on the island with a panel of speakers from Maui Police Department, Child & Family Service and Child Welfare Services.
“Sexual assault on this island—nobody talks about it,” said Andrea Hernandez, Child & Family Service Office Manager and kupuna group leader. “Slowly…the word is getting around [to protect our children]..but it’s a process.”
Signs of Abuse
Attendees learned signs of a child abuse perpetrator, behavior and physical indications of an abused child, and tips on how to educate and better protect children from getting into hazardous situations.
According to Hawaii’s Sex Abuse Treatment Center (SATC) statistics, “over 90 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims reported knowing their attacker: 34 percent were family members and 59 percent acquaintances. Only seven percent of the perpetrators were strangers to the victim.”
Staying alert for any signs of a perpetrator as well as physical or behavioral signs from a child help minimize risk, said Santiago.
“Grooming dynamics,” or the process of a perpetrator getting access to the child, first relies on breaking down defenses and gaining their trust, typically through games and shared interests, according to the National Center of Victims of Crime. If a child feels uncomfortable around an individual, don’t make them spend time with them, even if they’re a family member.
“In this community, a lot of [child abuse] starts in the family and in the home itself with an older generation… a brother, or part of their family system,” said attendee Megan Sanford.
“We want to break the cycle,” he said. “We want to break the silence.”
Several behavioral signs a child may display if abused, according to experts are withdrawal or depression; unexplained fear, anger, anxiety or outbursts; behavior that is “too good” and fear or unwillingness to be around an individual, a house or specific room. Physical signs include bruises, scratches, itching around the genitals, signs of STDs, tenderness or soreness and blood in urine or stool.
To aid with youth education, Kealoha Hooper works with the Consuelo Foundation and gives school presentations called, “My Body is Special,” which teaches children about individual boundaries.
“Our culture is a kissing culture, our culture is a hugging culture,” said attendee James Espaniola. “Some touching is good — it is essential for the growth of our children — but there’s a difference between good touching and bad touching.”
Santiago said part of the issue may also come from a lack parental authority.
“A lot of times, we, as parents, want to give our kids freedom but knowing who has access to your children can be prevention as well,” said Santiago.
Talking with your children is important to decrease their risk of harm, according to sexual abuse experts. Teaching children about their bodies, what abuse is, what is against the rules for others to do and encouraging keiki to come to you for any reason, good or bad, is a proactive way to prevent abusive situations, states SATC.
If there are any suspicions of child abuse, parents and guardians are encouraged to act on instinct.
“We need to do all we can to protect our children,” said Santiago. “It’s our job to protect them.”
Several island resources include Child Welfare Service, Child & Family Service and the Maui County Police Department.
For more information on supportive advocacy, clinical therapy and support groups, or if you are currently experiencing or struggling with past sexual assault or abuse, call Molokai’s Child & Family Service Sexual Assault Center at 553-5529 or the 24-hour hotline at 213-5522.