When child sexual abuse or assault happens, it’s typically done by someone the child knows and trusts.
“We’re very good at talking about ‘stranger danger,’ but we’re not good about talking about strange behaviour,” said Christina Johnson, executive director of the Sanare Centre.
Cheryl Patterson, manager of the Chinook Child and Youth Advocacy Centre in Lethbridge, said provincially there has been a 15 to 25 per cent annual increase of referrals for child sexual abuse, extreme physical abuse and extreme neglect since 2019.
She says a good first step to preventing child sexual abuse is being open about education.
“It’s always important for us to be checking in with children to see what’s going in their lives and create that safe place for them to have those conversations,” said Patterson.
“Talk early and talk often to children about body ownerships,” Johnson said. “The right to say no, and that if sexual abuse does occur, it’s never ever the child’s fault.”
Experts say the signs a child might be experiencing a sexual trauma include: a sudden change in behaviour or appearance, increased aggression or depression, displaying sexual knowledge that is beyond their stage of development, and not wanting to go to a specific place or spend time with a particular person.
“Every child is unique and no two children will experience trauma in the same way. So the presence of a single sign does not prove that child abuse is occurring, but it may indicate that a closer look is warranted,” said Patterson.
Johnson says children who have experienced sexual trauma are at risk in the future for addiction, fractured relationships with loved ones and involvement in criminal activity.
“Children are resilient. And if they are given access to appropriate treatment that is available through Alberta sexual assault centres and Alberta’s Child Advocacy Centres, we know that children can heal and that they don’t have to experience all those things,” said Johnson.
The Chinook Child and Youth Advocacy Centre began operating in November 2021, supporting children and families impacted by abuse or neglect. Supports include disclosure, investigations and navigating the judicial process.
The centre is currently fundraising to finish the construction of its facility and hopes to have it complete next spring.
If you or a child you know needs support, you can call or text Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence at 1-866-403-8000.