In wake of the new documentary Leaving Neverland, which has brought the sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson back into the spotlight, many viewers are left wondering how to handle situations in which they suspect a child is being abused.
The film, which is airing in two parts on HBO on Sunday and Monday, follows the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who came to know the “Bad” singer as children — as young as 5 in Robson’s case — and who now claim Jackson sexually molested both of them at separate times when they were children. (The Jackson family has filed a lawsuit against HBO and in a CBS This Morning interview with Gayle King, which aired on Wednesday, the singer’s brothers, Tito, Marlon, and Jackie Jackson, as well as Jackson’s nephew, Taj Jackson — denounced the film and Robson and Safechuck’s claims.)
As Robson, 36, and Safechuck, 40, claim, Jackson “groomed” them into believing that the alleged abuse was out of love and taught them drills to avoid getting caught. Though the mothers of the two accusers said they were unaware of the alleged abuse, there are actions that parents and guardians can take proactively to protect their children from harm by knowing the warning signs to look out for.
“It’s not always easy to identify child sexual abuse, but there are some warning signs parents can look out for,” the VP of Communications for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, Jodi Omear, tells PEOPLE. “If someone does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them no, or if someone makes comments that sexualize a child’s normal behavior — these can all be red flags.”
As outlined by RAINN, there are steps parents can take to protect their children from sexual abuse including: showing an interest in their day-to-day lives, getting to know the people in their life, choosing caregivers carefully, talking about the media and knowing the warning signs.
Also important is encouraging children to speak up, teaching them about boundaries, teaching them how to talk about their bodies, letting them know they won’t get in trouble for speaking up, giving them a chance to raise new topics and set aside some time during the day to give them undivided attention.
Warning signs can come in several forms which manifest in kids as physical, behavioral and emotional behaviors. According to RAINN, physical warning signs include sexually transmitted infections and signs of trauma to the genital area, including unexplained bleeding, bruising or blood on the sheets.
Common behavioral warning signs include sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age, bedwetting or soiling the bed if the child has outgrown these behaviors, not wanting to be left alone with certain people and trying to avoid removing clothing, even when changing or bathing.
When it comes to emotional warning signs, they include a kid’s excessive talk or knowledge about sexual topics, resuming behaviors that they had grown out of (like thumbsucking), nightmares and excessive worry.
RAINN says it’s important to be cautious of adults who do not respect boundaries, engage in touching that a child or the child’s parents or guardians have indicated is unwanted, try to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life, do not seem to have age-appropriate relationships, talk with children about their personal problems or relationships, spend time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or make up excuses to be alone with the child, express unusual interest in child’s sexual development (such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors) or give a child gifts without occasion or reason.
If abuse is suspected, it’s important to first talk to the child in a non-threatening environment where the child feels comfortable. During the conversation, RAINN suggests not using a tone that is serious as the child might be scared into giving answers that they think the adult might want to hear.
Some tips for talking to the child from the organization include asking them if someone has been touching them, rather than asking if someone has been hurting them. Understand that abuse may feel good to a child as they can’t fully comprehend what has happened to them, so they may not bring forward information when asked if someone is “hurting” them.
Also be sure to use “I” statements rather than “you” to avoid sounding judgmental and let the child know that they are not in trouble. Many perpetrators will threaten the child by saying that something bad will happen if someone finds out about the abuse.
Before reporting abuse, tell the child that you’re going to talk to someone who will help and don’t make it seem as if you are asking their permission. If you’re concerned about a child’s safety, discuss the concerns explicitly with the authorities while making the report.
Though reporting agencies vary state by state, you can visit RAINN’s State Law Database to find the agencies in your area.
If you or someone you care about is affected by sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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