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Parents, others must know signs of sex abuse

June 30, 2012
By Ashley Rittenhouse ( , The Marietta Times

Experts say since most sexually abused children don't tell anyone about their experience it's extremely important that parents, neighbors of children and others recognize the signs of abuse.

They also say since most sexual abusers don't leave physical marks, it can sometimes be difficult to detect that the abuse is occurring.

"Most perpetrators are good about not leaving physical marks because they don't want to get caught and that's why it's hard to prosecute them or find the evidence," said LeAnn Bates, a Private Violence Project counselor at Washington County Children Services.

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Belpre Elementary School guidance counselor Karen Waller, who just retired at the end of the school year after serving 26 years in that position, admitted that recognizing that a child has been sexually abused isn't always easy.

"The signs for a lot of emotional and physical concerns of kids can be the same signs as going through puberty or an ineffective friendship," Waller said. "That's why we always say it's better to err on the side of safety."

Bates said there are emotional and behavioral signs people can look for though which may signal that a child has been sexually abused.

Fact Box

Sexual abuse signs in children:

Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature.

Sleep problems or nightmares.

Depression or withdrawal from friends or family.


Statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area.

Refusal to go to school.

Delinquency/conduct problems.


Aspects of sexual molestation in drawings, games or fantasies.

Unusual aggressiveness.

Suicidal behavior.

Source: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,

For one thing, she said a child might suddenly lose interest in visiting a certain relative or neighbor, which could indicate that person is committing the abuse.

"They'll make excuses that they don't want to go to places that they used to want to go and it's usually associated with a person," Bates said.

She noted that signs shown by sexually abused children sometimes vary depending on age.

She said younger children, for instance, are more likely to play out what they have experienced than older children. Bates said younger children might do this using, for example, a baby doll.

"Some of the older kids will be uncomfortable when other people are kissing or they'll do passionate kissing or french kissing," Bates added.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children who are seductive or have an unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature might have been sexually abused.

Bates added that a child who breaks normal space boundaries with everyone they come into contact with may be a sexual abuse victim.

"If they meet new people and they're hanging on them, they've desensitized that sensor that says there's personal space," she said.

The placing of objects in the vagina or rectum is also a sign of sexual abuse, Bates said, and children who add sexual aspects in drawings may also have experienced abuse.

Waller said if a child exhibits symptoms of sexual abuse or indicates verbally they've been sexually abused, school employees are mandated to report it.

She said teachers, bus drivers and others look for signs such as changes in behavior or academic performance or poor relationships with other children or adults.

"The idea of the mandated reporter is going to come back into focus because of the incident at Penn State," Waller said. "All of us who work with children are mandated reporters. That doesn't mean let your superior know, that means you are the one who needs to get safe help for that child."

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was recently convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. He will be sentenced in the next three months and likely will spend the rest of his life in jail.

Other Penn State coaches have been accused of knowing about the incidents and not reporting them to authorities.

Officials at Washington County Children Services said if anyone suspects that a child is being sexually abused, they should call the agency at 373-3485.



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