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2019 News

NOVA, County Leaders Push Ambitious Effort to End Child Sexual Abuse

January 10, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Grace Wheeler, NOVA, 215-343-6543, ext. 166, or grace@novabucks.org

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Calling child sexual abuse both pervasive and preventable, Bucks County leaders this week joined the Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) in urging all county residents to participate in a comprehensive, three-year program to eradicate the sexual victimization of children.

Bucks County is one of five Pennsylvania counties chosen to participate in a pilot program known as the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative.

The initiative – funded through penalties levied against Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky case – combines parental training, school workshops for young children and free sexual abuse prevention sessions aimed at reaching at least 5 percent of Bucks County’s adult population, or about 25,000 people.

“Child sexual abuse is an epidemic,” said Penelope R. Ettinger, executive director of NOVA. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18.  IMG_8842 (2)

“It happens in every zip code, it happens whether you are rich or poor, it happens whether you are well-educated or don’t have an education,” Ettinger said at a news conference Wednesday morning in the Bucks County Administration Building. “Prevention is key, and that’s why we’re here today. Protecting children is the most important thing that we can do. It’s going to take all of us … our entire community.”

Vital to prevention, and the impetus behind the ambitious reach of the adult training program, known as “Darkness to Light: Stewards of Children,” is helping adults to recognize signs of sexual abuse in children, and to educate them in how and when to report suspected abuse to authorities.

“When we talk about prevention, we really are talking about raising awareness and providing education in our communities,” said Bucks County Director of Housing and Human Services Jonathan Rubin, who helped obtain grant money of up to $750,000 over  three years for the initiative. IMG_8848 (2)“We know that child sexual abuse  happens behind closed doors, in the dark, in secret. And really the  only way to provide effective prevention is to bring it from darkness  into the light and to raise education, raise awareness, and help  people know how to help a child, how to report it, how to support  families through this process.”

The Darkness to Light component is a two-hour session run by a   trained facilitator. Participants are educated in facts related to child sexual abuse; ways of minimizing opportunities for potential predators to have access to children; strategies for talking to children about safe and unsafe touches and how to tell adults about potential abuse; recognizing symptoms of child sexual abuse, such as emotional and behavioral changes; and knowing how to report suspected abuse.

“We can have all the knowledge and tools in the world, but if we do not react responsibly to abuse, it does us no good, it does the children no good,” said Grace Wheeler, NOVA’s coordinator for the Save and Healthy Communities Initiative. IMG_8880 (2) “With these five steps, we expect that participants will leave the training feeling that they have more knowledge … to take the steps necessary to protect children.”

A stark, emotional reminder of what can happen to children when adults fail to acknowledge signs of child sexual abuse came from Lyndlee Dull, who was victimized as a child by William Thomas of Falls Township. Thomas, 61, was sentenced in 2017 to serve 60 to 120 years in state prison for sexually assaulting at least six girls over a span of two decades.  

Dull stressed the importance of prevention, saying the suffering of child victims endures long after the abuse ends. Guilt, depression, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, and the inability to maintain intimate, trusting relationships can haunt survivors throughout their lives, she said.

“I am nearly 35 years old, and only through the help of NOVA have I found who I can truly be, without being robbed by the monsters of my past of all that life has to offer,” Dull said to a hushed room at the news conference.

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Thomas, she said, “made himself indispensable to my household,” enabling him to prey on her. “Blind eyes were turned, denial ensued, and the abuse continued because there was no one to teach the adults in my life otherwise. No one knew the signs, no one knew the effects, and when a predator meticulously and intentionally gains the trust of the adults, the child is no longer heard.”

Dull called it critical that citizens be educated in ways that the adults in her childhood were not.

“When we choose not to acknowledge and educate ourselves on these matters, we risk one more broken child, one more lost soul, one more light that goes out,” she said. “So I ask you, as a survivor and a mother … be their light.”

County Commissioners Chairman Robert G. Loughery, Commissioner Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia and District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub pledged to strongly encourage county employees to take the Darkness to Light training. Bucks County’s workforce is among the county’s largest, with more than 2,300 fulltime employees.

“Protecting our children is a priority for county government, but it needs to be a priority for each and every one of us,” Loughery said.

Marseglia, whose professional background is in social work, said child sexual abuse had evolved from a topic that was only whispered about in the 1970s to a priority for law enforcement, schools, social services and other public and private entities.

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“We are going to turn to our entire community to become the eyes and ears for our children, to speak up for our children,” she said. “They will be a support to the District Attorney and law enforcement. They are going to be a support to victims who don’t need to feel shame and will be protected. They will be a support to those of us who are already trained to recognize it, because we can’t do it alone.”

Weintraub, whose office successfully prosecuted William Thomas, said police and prosecutors still encounter denial among some adults that child sexual abuse is as widespread as it is.

“We have to educate people and make sure that they know and understand that these things do happen in the real world, whether we like it or not, whether we keep our eyes open or closed,” he said. The Darkness to Light training, he said, “is the spark that we have needed to hopefully eradicate child abuse forever. I hope and pray that we are successful.”  IMG_8855 (2)

In addition to the adult trainings, Wheeler said, all second-grade classrooms in Bucks County’s 13 public school districts will conduct “safe touch” workshops for children by the end of the 2019-20 school year. The workshops will teach children the difference between safe and unsafe touches, and how to tell an adult when the latter occurs.

“We are stewards of our children,” Ettinger concluded. “In places like Bucks County, we spend a lot of time lauding all of their accomplishments, but we really need to take the time to protect them as well.  

“I can’t imagine that if we are telling them to wear their bike helmets, if we are making sure they are in their car seats … that we wouldn’t take the time to protect them from child sexual abuse,” she said. “It is preventable.” IMG_8843 (2)

For more information, a schedule of upcoming trainings, and information on how to sign up for Darkness to Light training, please click on this link: https://www.novabucks.org/free-training-on-child-sexual-abuse-prevention/ or contact Grace Wheeler directly at grace@novabucks.org or 215-343-6543, ext. 166.

Anyone seeking to report child sexual abuse may call Bucks County Children and Youth at 215-348-6900 or Childline at 800-932-0313.