We hold babies with broken arms and skull fractures. A 9- to 10-year-old little girl whose "father figure" has raped or molested her is our most common "client." We see children whose day-to-day existence is worse than most can even begin to comprehend. We lead a children's advocacy center, a best practice model for our community's most challenging cases that might end up in a criminal court process. We work where healing begins for abused children, and while we celebrate when children find their resilience and begin to heal from their trauma, we mourn with our colleagues all too often.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and other city leaders, as part of a new campaign against domestic violence, recently stated, ''You can call a man who hits a woman a lot of things, but you can't call him a man." We would expand on that statement. You can call a man who has sex with a child or touches a child in a sexual way a lot of things, but you absolutely cannot call him a man.
According to a National Juvenile Justice Report by Snyder, nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults in the U.S., and this includes assaults on adults, occur to children ages 17 and under.
It therefore bears repeating. A man should never have sex with a child or touch a child in a sexual way, nor should a woman. The subject is difficult, even still taboo. This is not a common topic at our family gatherings, cocktail parties or community rallies. We know it's hard to talk about.
It's our job, however, to think about it and talk about it every day. Our agency serves more than 2,000 children annually, most of them children sexually abused by someone they know and trust. So, we're not shy, not afraid to raise the level of discussion because we know and see these children. We know and see their pain as they work to alter their perspective and beliefs about "who they are" -- as they work to courageously transform from victim to survivor. It is our privilege and responsibility to stand up for these children.
April is National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, and we invite you to join us -- to stand up for children. It doesn't matter what you do. Just take a simple action -- become more aware. Watch an educational video. Read some statistics. Make an effort to talk to your own children about keeping their bodies safe. When they are young we teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the road, we tell them that skull and crossbones on a container means poison, and we warn them about talking to strangers. We don't, however, talk to them about what to do if an adult does something to hurt them or make them feel uncomfortable. Here is some language to weave into several conversations with your own child in a calm, loving way:
I love you with all that I am. You are precious to me. It's my job as your parent to try to protect you and help you learn and grow into all that you want to become.
I want to know if someone makes you feel bad in any way, no matter who it is. I want to know if someone asks you to keep a secret from me. I want to know if you're scared, or hurt, or sad, or mad. It's my job as your parent to help you.
I may not say it enough. I may not always say the right things. But I adore you. It's always okay to tell me what you're worried about. If someone makes you feel bad in any way, makes you feel icky or acts in a creepy way -- I want to know. I promise to listen and to hear you.
Remember that your body is your own and that the parts of your body that your bathing suit covers are private. I want to know if anyone tries to touch you there. It's always okay to tell me about your feelings. I want you to know that I am here for you. I am on your side. I am on your team.
It is true that if someone really wants to harm a child, if a true pedophile has his sights on a particular child, there really may be little that we can do to stop it. Just ask the many survivors of Jerry Sandusky. But we have to try.
During April, when our awareness of the public health issue of child maltreatment is heightened more than perhaps any other time of year, we believe that we can all make a difference. We can all send out information via a Facebook post or tweet. For those who want to do more, consider participating in Show Your Blue Day (April 10th), ask those in your place of worship to incorporate child abuse information into the sermon or into the bulletin on Blue Sunday (April 28th). Donate your time to a children's advocacy center in your local community. Tell us what you decide to do at www.istandup.org.
Ellen Magnis is chief of external affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman's University. Written in collaboration with Mr. Lynn M. Davis, President and CEO, Dallas Children's Advocacy Center.