Safeguarding children from sexual abuse

There is no crime that shakes us to our core like sexual assault. It is a deeply personal and emotionally traumatic crime. Sexual violence can have a profound impact on physical and mental health, the effects of which may last a lifetime. Potential long-term effects of child sexual abuse include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual dysfunction and substance abuse. For many victims, the basic assumptions, beliefs and expectations they have about themselves, intimacy, safety and the capacity to feel that their life is meaningful are shattered.

I once testified before the Seattle City Council stating that ‘sexual assault is the worst crime there is.’ Incredulous, a council member retorted, ‘Surely homicide is worse than sexual assault.’ I replied, ‘With all due respect council member, for the homicide victim their pain is over. Their family and friends suffer from the loss, but the victim’s pain and suffering are over. Victims of sexual assault suffer for a lifetime, as do their friends and family members who are trying to support the victim through all the psychological, social, physical and relationship difficulties they may face.’

I wasn’t trying to be cavalier in my answer, nor was I trying to insult families who lost a loved one to homicidal violence. I was simply reflecting on my many years of experience as an investigator of sexual assault crimes, the hundreds of interviews I completed with victims, and what I knew to be true from my own child sexual abuse victimisation. There is not a day that goes by where you don’t remember.

As Head of Crimes against Children for INTERPOL, I travelled the world working with law enforcement to try and prevent sexual abuse. Whether I was in Iran, Russia, the United States, Australia, Romania, the United Arab Emirates, Italy or France, there were common denominators that we could all agree on. We all want to protect our families and communities, especially our children because safety is one of the most basic and fundamental needs of mankind. We also agree that most people have big misconceptions about who sex offenders are.

When most people imagine a sex offender, they picture some ugly, old man in a trench coat stepping out from behind bushes, coaxing children to come to him in exchange for some candy, or they imagine a man in a ski mask hiding in a parking garage waiting for an unsuspecting shopper. They don’t picture sex offenders looking like: Uncle Joe or Aunt Mary, the neighbour next door, the friendly parishioner, an extended family member, trusted co-worker, a teacher, minister, or a person in a position of trust and authority like BBC host Jimmy Savile, or USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar. They especially don’t think of mom or dad, or in the case of single parents, a boyfriend or fiancée.

In 2008, David Finkelhor, a pre-eminent researcher on violence against youth in the United States, found that 95 per cent of child sexual assault victims were assaulted by a male; almost three-fourths (71 per cent) were assaulted by someone they were acquainted with or knew by sight, 18 per cent were assaulted by a complete stranger, and 10 percent were assaulted by a family member. These results were based on a nationally representative sample of children.[i]

As parents, law enforcement officers, and educators, we spend a tremendous amount of time teaching children about “stranger danger.” Yet according to this study, only 18 percent of sex offenders are strangers.[ii] We are doing our children a great disservice if we are only talking to them about stranger danger. Stranger danger ignores the fact that roughly 82 percent of persons who are likely to sexually assault them are people they know. We need to be talking to them about preventing sexual assault by avoiding threatening situations from anyone.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends using the following type language when talking to your child about avoiding threatening situations: [iii]

  • Don’t say: Never talk to strangers.
  • Say: You should not approach just anyone. If you need help, look for a uniformed police officer, a store clerk with a name tag, or a parent with children.
  • Don’t say: Stay away from people you don’t know.
  • Say: It’s important for you to get my permission before going anywhere with anyone.
  • Don’t say: You can tell someone is bad just by looking at them.
  • Say: Pay attention to what people do. Tell me right away if anyone asks you to keep a secret, makes you feel uncomfortable, or tries to get you to go with them.

So how were Jimmy Savile, Larry Nassar and other high-profile paedophiles able to get away with their abuse for so long? Institutional grooming is a process that creates the illusion that the environment in which abuse occurs, or in which an abusive relationship is established is safe for children and/or that individuals dealing with children in this environment are above reproach, [iv] when in fact they are not.

Parents put their faith in the BBC. They felt the BBC was a large, trustworthy news organization and assumed they had safeguards in place and were above reproach. Parents similarly put their faith and trust in USA Gymnastics assuming they had adequate safeguards in place, and they were above reproach. Countries put their faith in peacekeepers they send to a foreign country expecting they will represent their home country well, and assuming they will be above reproach. Yet we know in all of these incidents, these assumptions were horribly, horribly wrong.

In order to prevent sexual abuse, there must be a proactive and conscious determination that safeguarding our children is our number one priority. We MUST insist that any organization that is responsible for the safety of our children, even if it’s only for a couple of hours, has strong, effective safeguarding policies in place. We have an obligation to children to make sure the institutions and organizations they participate in “do no harm.” It’s OUR responsibility, not the children’s.

Keeping Children Safe is an organisation that I am honoured to support and lend my time and reputation to. They have effective, international child safeguarding standards and capacity building that all organisations that work with children should subscribe to. I encourage these organisations to do so before it’s too late. I am often asked, “How can I help protect children?” This is how you do it. Make sure you hold the institutions and organisations that children participate in accountable. Make sure they have strong safeguarding standards in place. Get proactively involved. Keeping Children Safe will be there to help the organisations you depend on to meet the principle of “do no harm.”


[i] Finkelhor, D., Hammer, H., Sedlak, A., Sexually assaulted children (pdf): National estimates and characteristics, 2008, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington, D.C.

[ii] Other studies show strangers make up between 8 and 18 percent depending on the study sample size or methodology.

[iii] Copyright © 2014–2018 National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Alexandria, Virginia.

[iv] Marcus Erooga and Keith Kaufman, Practical implications of research regarding child sexual abuse in youth serving settings (pdf), 2016, ATSA 35th Annual Research and Treatment Conference, Orlando, Florida.

About the author

Det. Bob Shilling is a retired veteran of the Seattle Police Department where he led the Sex and Kidnapping Offender Detail for 21 years but spent the last three years of his career as the Head of Crimes against Children for INTERPOL in Lyon, France. Under his leadership, his team and network of investigators physically rescued 5,420 victims of sexual abuse through victim identification techniques on child abuse images circulated on the Internet and Darknet. Below Bob discusses the importance of safeguarding children from sexual abuse.


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