If other adults around them had known and acted to protect them, Mark Serrano, Julie Lynch and Marilyn Van Derbur wouldn’t have been sexually abused as children.
The three are among the adult survivors of child sexual abuse who speak in the video presentation of “Stewards of Children,” a program that trains adults to prevent child sexual abuse.
“I’ve probably spent $100,000 on recovery,” said Lynch, of Los Angeles, who was sexually abused when she was a child by an aunt, a woman with a doctorate whom everyone in the family thought was charming.
Serrano was abused by a priest who was a trusted friend of the family.
Van Derbur, who was named Miss America in 1958, was assaulted over 13 years by her father, from the time she was 5 until she was 18.
She later wrote a book, “Miss America By Day,” about her recovery from the abuse.
“It’s the secrets that poison our families,” she says in the video.
In southeast Louisiana, the “Stewards of Children” training, a program of the national Darkness to Light organization, is being provided by Child Advocacy Services in Hammond.
The nonprofit organization is the umbrella group for two other organizations.
Its Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) provides volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children, and its Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) program provides forensic experts to interview children who have disclosed sexual abuse.
“Even though we have a CAC and a CASA, those two intervene after” abuse of children has occurred, said Rob Carlisle, chief executive officer of Child Advocacy Services.
The organization’s board wanted to take additional action, to help prevent the abuse, he said.
Several years ago, the Hammond-based Child Advocacy Services group partnered with the Charleston, S.C.-based Darkness to Light organization — formed by child sexual abuse survivor Anne Lee — to offer the training in this area.
Today Child Advocacy Services, which serves 10 parishes from Ascension to Tangipahoa, has six staff members trained as facilitators to lead the Stewards of Children training.
Carlisle said there are close to 20 trained facilitators statewide, some who work independently and some who work with other organizations.
“We want to deny that anything like that could happen to our kids,” Carlisle told those attending a recent prevention training session for the public, hosted by Oak Grove Baptist Church in Prairieville.
“It does take a village” to raise a child, Carlisle said. “We’ve gotten too far away from that.”
The emotional and physical costs of child sexual abuse are high, said Lee, of James Island, S.C., who founded Darkness to Light.
Survivors of such abuse often turn to alcohol and drug use or have unhealthy relationships, she said.
Recent research has also linked child sexual abuse to such later health problems as diabetes and obesity and even heart disease and cancer, Lee said.
“We have no choice but to step into the reality of what is,” she said.
Statistics from Darkness to Light on child sexual abuse show that:
• One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
• One in five children are sexually solicited while on the Internet.
• In more than 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the children know their abusers.
• Thirty percent to 40 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by family members.
• Nearly 40 percent of children sexually abused are abused by older or larger children.
• The median age for reported sexual abuse is 9 years old.
Carlisle said that last year, in the 10 parishes it serves, the Hammond-based Children’s Advocacy Center program conducted forensic interviews of 461 children who had been sexually abused.
“Of the 461 children, 434 knew their offenders,” Carlisle said.
(There is also a Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center, which this year opened new headquarters on East Boulevard. The Capital Area CASA Association is also located in Baton Rouge.)
One of the first things that adults can do to protect children from sexual abuse is to understand that “realities — not trust — should influence” decisions regarding children, according to the Stewards of Children program.
One-adult/one-child situations should be eliminated or reduced. If such situations are in place, then caregivers should be able to drop in unexpectedly.
Adults should stay alert for changes in children’s behavior. A child who is sexually abused may behave destructively or have a hard time connecting to others, withdrawing from people.
Conversely, they may behave in a “too-perfect” way, according to Stewards of Children, or they might experience nightmares or bedwetting.
“Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be red flags,” the workbook reports.
But, it adds, “Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.”
There may also be physical signs, such as redness, rashes or swelling in the genital area or urinary tract infections.
Or a child may have physical problems that come with anxiety, such as headaches or chronic stomach pain, according to Stewards of Children literature.
If a child reports sexual abuse to an adult, the adult should believe the child, offer support and “affirm the child’s courage and goodness,” according to Stewards of Children.
The adult should report the abuse to either local law enforcement or the state Department of Children and Family Services, which recently launched a new toll-free number for such reports at 1-855-452-5437.
The identities of people who report child sexual abuse remain private by law, Carlisle said.
The training video of Stewards of Children acknowledges that the discovery of child abuse is an upsetting, life-changing event.
“It disrupts life. There’s no getting around it … You have to be willing to step into the unknown,” it says.
“Over 20 percent of our children are being abused,” said Darkness to Light founder Lee.
She called it a silent epidemic. One reason for that, she said, is simply that the thought of a family member or of someone known to the family abusing a child is “very high on the ‘ick’ factor.”
“We have pushed this ick factor under the rug,” Lee said.
Lee was sexually abused over several summers by her great-uncle at her family’s annual reunion. Lee was 4 years old the first time it happened.
She said it wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she realized that the abuse was the root cause of problems she had had throughout her life with relationships.
When, as an adult, she told her parents what had happened, they supported and believed her, she said.
“One of the affirming things a survivor can hear are that they’re believed and supported,” Lee said.
“If I were to say anything to an adult (who is) the holder of the knowledge, it is to not have a big emotional reaction. Tell them they are believed,” she said.
One of the best things the adult can do to support a survivor of child sexual abuse is to find professional help for them, she said.
After she began her own recovery from abuse, decades after the original events, Lee decided to leave her job as the executive director of a community health foundation to form Darkness to Light.
The adult survivors of child sexual abuse who shared their stories for the Stewards of Children training video told of the many ways they were kept silenced as children by their abusers.
One woman’s abuser told her that stories and pictures of her would be put on the Internet, if she tried to tell anyone.
Another survivor was told that if she told her mother, who had cancer, about what was happening, that it would kill her mother.
Former Miss America Van Derbur told how her abuser, her father, was in her room one night, when she, then a child of 11, heard her mother coming down the hall toward her room.
“Everything stopped,” Van Derbur said. Her father seemed afraid and Van Derbur willed her mother to continue walking to her room and save her.
But, instead, Van Derbur heard her mother stop in the hallway, then turn and walk away.
“I knew she would never, ever come to help me. I believe she made a choice, and she didn’t choose me,” Van Derbur said.
“We can stop this. We can stop this in real time,” Lee said.
“Everybody wants to think this is someone else’s problem,” she said.
“Every parent, every grandparent, every aunt and uncle and every neighbor needs to do this training,” Lee said.
For more information on the Stewards of Children training, call the Child Advocacy Services in Hammond, at (985) 902-9583.