Jenny Dodson-Weihl believes every adult has a responsibility to protect children.
That responsibility is especially important at a time when children are spending less time than ever around mandated reporters such as teachers and child care providers due to the pandemic.
Dodson-Weihl is a consultant for Missouri Kids First where she coordinates the Missouri Stewards of Children program. As a former school law attorney and as a training coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates, she has seen the impact of child sexual abuse first-hand, she told the Fulton Rotary Club during their virtual meeting Wednesday.
"Child sexual abuse is something we really don't know the real numbers on," she said. "We know that approximately one in 10 children are abused before their 18th birthday, and that number is probably low — the average age of disclosure is 55. So we do know that much of child sexual abuse doesn't go reported within a person's childhood years."
Missouri Kids First provides training and support to Missouri's nine child advocacy centers, Dodson-Weihl said.
"When a child has been either abused or neglected, or has experienced some trauma, their caregiver, parent or law enforcement can bring them to a child advocacy center," she said.
These centers are staffed by forensic investigators who can guide children in sharing their stories, medical staff who can perform the necessary examinations and therapists trained in helping children and families heal. Law enforcement and child protective services also work through child advocacy centers.
In addition to supporting the child advocacy centers, Missouri Kids First also lobbies the state Legislature to encourage the adoption of child-friendly policies and engages in community education.
"Our overall mission is to create a world free of child abuse and neglect," Dodson-Weihl said. "Child abuse is a public health issue requiring a community response."
Everyone can be part of that response — not just mandated reporters. Dodson-Weihl told listeners about three resources for learning more about how to protect children.
"Many previous efforts have been focused on teaching kids about body safety and good touch vs. bad touch," she said. "That's good, but we also need training for adults so they can set codes of conduct, policies and social norms."
The first resource is protectmokids.com. It's an online training designed for mandated reporters, but it's available for free to any adult who's interested. The four lessons included cover legal requirements for mandated reporters, indicators of child abuse and neglect, planning a response and effectively reporting. The training should take one to three hours to complete.
Learn more at missourikidsfirst.org/get-help/mandated-reporter-training.
The second program is the #Essential4Kids campaign, which is new this summer.
"The adults who usually see children, such as teachers, are not seeing them — those are the adults who make highest number of reports of abuse and neglect," Dodson-Weihl said. "This is a campaign to inform all adults of all of our responsibilities."
Visit essential4kids.org to learn more.
Finally, Dodson-Weihl talked about the Stewards of Children training, developed by South Carolina-based nonprofit Darkness to Light. Individuals and groups can take the training online, which involves watching two 35-minute videos, each followed by 20-25 minutes of discussion
"That discussion is really an important part of the training," she said.
The videos feature child sexual abuse survivors, experts and community members sharing their stories and evidence-based strategies to prevent child abuse and address it when it occurs.
Because child sexual abuse is such a sensitive and stigmatized topic, it's important to have community buy-in — residents must band together to support survivors and encourage holding bad actors accountable. Dodson-Weihl said studies indicate once 5 percent of adults in a community have received some kind of training in child sexual abuse prevention, there's a shift in the community's culture. At the end of 2019, 70 adults in Callaway County had been trained through Stewards of Children, she said.
"About 1,800 more adults are needed to reach tipping point," she estimated. "Children don't have the agency to protect themselves. It will take all of us to address this issues."
Learn more about Stewards of Children at d2l.org/education/stewards-of-children.
Missouri's child abuse and neglect hotline can be reached at 1-800-392-3738. Those who are Deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired can instead call 1-800-735-2466 or text 1-800-735-2966.