April 26, 2021

This op-ed written by Jon R. Conte, emeritus profesor and director of the School's Joshua Center on Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, appeared in The Houston Chronicle on April 23, 2021. The editors selected Conte's essay because federal legislation recently introduced was modeled after a Texas state law and named for Jenna Quinn, a child sexual abuse survivor from Texas. 

Lost amid all the coverage of the COVID-19 stimulus bill was the re-introduction of the bi-partisan Jenna Quinn Law. Named for a child abuse survivor and modeled after state legislation enacted several years ago in Texas, the bill would authorize federal grants to train and educate teachers, care givers and other adults who work with children, as well as students themselves on how to identify, report and prevent child sexual abuse.

Passage could not come soon enough. The lockdowns and school closures imposed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in children who are most vulnerable being isolated from the resources and people who could help protect them and report the abuse. When you add in increased levels of stress, frustration, anxiety, isolation and depression, as well as the economic instability and job losses the pandemic has caused, we are in the midst of a perfect storm for a rise in child abuse.  

Even before last year, it was estimated that one in five girls and one in 20 boys were victims of child sexual abuse Child Sexual Abuse Statistics: The National Center for Victims of Crime. Ninety percent of this abuse is committed by someone in a trusting relationship with the child; more often than not that person is a family member, according to the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center (BSCC). Facts & Myths: Barbara Sinatra Childrens Center. In fact, youth commit more than a third of all the sexual offenses against other youth that are reported to police.  

With many children having been quarantined in small pods with others and in families with easy access to pornography, the risk becomes even greater that children may try out the things they inadvertently see on each other.  Only time will tell how many children have been abused over the COVID months.

And now with the return to whatever the new normal will be post-COVID, youth will be brought into greater contact with non-family adults or other youth who may well have an increased interest in sexually abusing younger children. 

So it is time to prepare children and their families to disclose abuse that has taken place over quarantine and to protect themselves in the future. Much in the same way we are striving to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, there needs to be a “stimulus” bill to attack this problem—that is the overarching mission of the Jenna Quinn Law.

Until that legislation is passed, however, there are steps we can immediately take on the road to prevention Let’s think of these steps in terms of infrastructure. There is much talk—and rightfully so—about ensuring the safety of bridges, roads, and our energy grid. Similarly, we have an obligation to ensure every child’s right to a normal, safe, happy, and healthy childhood. 

First and foremost, then, we need both children and parents to be better educated and empowered. That means parents learning how to talk to their kids about consent, giving their children permission to say “no.”  It also means training adults and children not to be “by-standers” but rather be “up-standers”; in other words, if you see something, say something.  (See youth art the Josuah Center website.) 

The BSCC has produced animated videos that provide an excellent way to open the discussion with kids of all ages.  These videos are currently being viewed in schools in over 10,000 U.S communities, many in response to “Erin’s Law” legislation that has been enacted in 37 states. More schools, youth groups, and especially families with parents and children together need to watch these videos.  Other organizations that offer easy-to-comprehend resources include the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network RAINNNational Sexual Violence Resource Center and Darkness To Light.

Of great importance, pediatricians need to be encouraged to screen for abuse during all routine examinations, just as they check children’s eyes, ears, heart and reflexes. They should engage their young patients’ parents in discussing how their family can discuss sexual abuse and sexual abuse prevention. 

Every organization touching the lives of children should be required to have a Youth Protection Policy, review the policy annually with youth and adults in the program and encourage violations of the policy to be reported immediately to appropriate authorities. Above all, this policy must support the healthy development of children.

If steps are taken now and in the near future, the post-COVID life of children can move in the direction of preventing sexual abuse and ensuring America’s human infrastructure.