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Protecting Children Requires More Than Just Car Seats: Shifting Cultural Norms to End Child Sexual Abuse

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Those of us over a certain age remember bouncing around the backseat of the family car, unrestrained, as our fathers or mothers sped down the highway. A generation later, it's unthinkable that we would allow our young children to ride without a car seat.

The widespread public safety campaign in the 1970s, accompanying the passage of state and federal laws strengthening child car seat safety regulations, was tremendously successful at decreasing our children's risk of injury or death from a car accident. Today, car seat use is nearly universal, a preventive measure ingrained in our national consciousness.

But there's a threat just as serious to your child's safety -- a risk that our nation has achieved far less success in minimizing.

Child sexual abuse.

Your lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is 1 in 84. Your child's risk of being sexually abused is 1 in 4 for girls and 1 in 6 for boys.

It's time to shift our understanding of safety.

As the leading national foundation working to end child sexual abuse, the Ms. Foundation for Women is embracing the car seat model of cultural and political change, through which safety precautions are normalized. We're tackling this issue community by community through our network of child sexual abuse prevention advocates.

With Jerry Sandusky's trial on the horizon, our solemn nation is reminded once again of the prevalence of child sexual abuse -- and that it most often happens close to home, by offenders our families know, trust and care deeply about.

But what the impending trial fails to expose is that this isolated criminal justice response does little to prevent future abuse. By focusing on past offenders, the criminal justice approach is rendered ineffective at preventing abuse for the vast majority of victims whose abuse continues, unreported. Worse, the false sense of safety elicited by a stranger's conviction belies the true danger of abusers among our children's close-knit circles.

At the epicenter of the child sexual abuse movement, the Ms. Foundation is enabling community-based solutions -- metaphorical car seats that protect children on their journey from church groups to piano lessons to soccer camps. We're helping create opportunities for prevention that take the onus off of children to stop the abuse. We're advancing solutions that require adults to pro-actively prevent -- rather than merely prosecute -- the abuse before it begins. We don't expect children to buckle themselves into car seats; nor should we expect children to navigate complex social ills on their own.

As with other areas of child safety, there isn't one single approach guaranteed to protect your child from harm. Rather, there's a mosaic of solutions that must be implemented at individual, family and organizational levels. Whether you're creating a Family Safety Plan or working to implement prevention policies at local youth-serving organizations, you can help reduce opportunities for child sexual abuse where your children live, learn and play.

As the Sandusky case has illustrated, child sexual abuse harms entire communities, leaving community members devastated and guilt-ridden over the failed responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us.

It's our job as adults to put an end to child sexual abuse and to create communities that are safe from every harm, from car accidents to child abusers. The next time you buckle your daughter into her car seat or strap on your son's bicycle helmet, commit to taking that first step toward preventing child sexual abuse in your own community.