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Training targets child sexual assault

(Far left) Hargraves Community Center counselor Jazmine Mason-Carter brainstorms safety ideas with other trainees.

(Far left) Hargraves Community Center counselor Jazmine Mason-Carter brainstorms safety ideas with other trainees.

The Darkness to Light (D2L) Initiative, which held a training Wednesday at the Chapel Hill Public Library, is an educational program that informs parents about the warning signs of child sexual abuse — and the chance their child might be harmed by someone they trust.

A documentary video shown as part of the training emphasized abusers can be charismatic and likable, may have jobs working with children and are not always male as stereotypes might suggest.

The training laid out a five-step process parents and caregivers can follow to maximize children’s safety: learn the facts, minimize opportunity, talk about it, recognize the signs and react responsibly.

Meredith Stewart, director of child safety for YMCA of the Triangle, said listening when kids report abuse and making them feel heard and believed is crucial.

“I’ve worked with kids my whole life. Unfortunately, this issue has come up,” she said. “What I would do is, I would look right at them and I would say, ‘You’re doing the right thing, you are so brave, thank you for telling me, I am going to do everything I can to help you and you are not alone.’”

Libby Fosso, who teaches at Chapel Hill’s University Presbyterian Preschool and attended the training, said her daughter has a disability that leaves her unable to speak.

“When she’s not with me, she’s always with someone who I don’t know very well, who’s had a background check, but because of her disability, she’s kind of a walking victim,” Fosso said. “We do the best we can to put our trust in people, which is sometimes very scary.”

Tom Clark, a human resources consultant for the Town of Chapel Hill and the presenter of the Darkness to Light training, said it’s important for organizations to clarify policies and prevent adults and children from ever being alone together in one-on-one situations.

“When we did this training in the library, they realized that when they’re sitting with kids in the book stacks, kids can be isolated,” he said. “They changed the way they operate, so they don’t sit anymore on the floor in between bookshelves where kids can’t be seen.”

According to the training materials, 80 percent of child sexual abuse happens in isolated, one-on-one situations.

The training video encouraged parents to be open with their children about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate touching, to use clear terms for body parts so children aren’t confused and to help children identify trusted adults who they can speak to if they ever feel uncomfortable in school or camp environments, for example.

“I would never, ever tell a child, ‘We’re not going to tell anybody, this is our secret,’” Stewart said. “It becomes part of that cycle of dishonesty and them learning not to trust adults.”

Because North Carolina is a mandatory reporting state, Stewart said, any suspicion of abuse a caregiver has must be reported to the Department of Social Services or to law enforcement. The training emphasized that the signs may not be physical — instead, children may lash out behaviorally as a response to abuse.

Condra Jones works for UNC Horizons, a substance abuse treatment program for women and their children. She said the training encouraged her to be more frank about the realities of child sexual assault with her own 7-year-old daughter.

“I want to share a little more information with her about inappropriate touches and things of that nature,” she said. “I want to reassure her that she can talk to me about anything.”

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