Child advocate talks about how to keep kids safe from sexual abuse
Tania Haigh is the founder and executive director of the KidsToo movement, an organization that aims to prevent and educate about child sex abuse. Maureen McKinney interviewed Haigh of Oak Park about issues including how Reinberg School in Chicago handled the sexual assault allegation against a school employee. This is an edited, excerpted version of the conversation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your organization?
KidsToo, or the KidsToo movement, came about from its founding organization that started in 2017 here in Illinois called Parents Against Child Sex Abuse or PAXA. Those early days, as is evident by the name, our focus was child sexual abuse.
And then through the pandemic, more opportunities in child protection came to us like online safety. And that's where the kids to movement was born was really this rallying cry for legislators and parents to be aware of the dangers that really became more evident through the pandemic and all the kids being at home on their electronics. And since then, we've really evolved keys to to stand for, you know, elevating child protection for modern day parents,
How can parents help their kids to prevent abuse?
Parents can take the first step of preventing child abuse or child sexual abuse by maintaining the lines of communication open with their kids. What we found in our work is that these types of topics tend to be very uncomfortable. And sometimes parents want to leave it to schools or other avenues for kids to get information.
And we believe that, as you know, when kids are as young as two are verbal, to begin teaching them about their bodies, the proper names of everything, and just fostering that openness. So, if a kid were to come forward, we would hope that parents are the most trusted adults in the kids lives, they can come forward with a disclosure and that ultimately, parents believe their children, which is the first step for a kid to be to begin to heal from, you know, an adult, an adverse childhood experience, like sexual abuse, for example,
How did Reinberg School in Chicago handle the recent case of the molestation of the four-year-old?
Based on the public information that we have access to, it appears that they are following the proper channels. So we helped advocate for a bill called Faith’s Law that was, in its final form, implemented this summer that really has multiple components to it, but specifically calls for communication to the parent and the parent community of that school.
So, based on our observation, what we've seen, they did the right step by communicating to the parent community that there was an allegation. They're using the resources made available through the Chicago Public Schools, and its Office of Inspector General, the Title IX protections, so, they've really enacted, you know, all of the different components that are available for administrators to utilize to give the importance of this case attention.
And we It seems to be that, you know, with more resources available to Chicago public schools, you know, they're indeed being utilized. And an investigation is underway from from what we can see,
What can parents do to keep their children safe while at school?
So, one in 10 kids will be sexually abused by an educator, before the child reaches age 18. So, while we believe that the intention of educators is to educate our children. In fact, they take on an Illinois doctrine in loco parentis, meaning when, we as parents, are not in the building, educators take on that role and responsibility.
Unfortunately, we know that predators pursue environments when they can have access to children. So, we are no longer surprised by the multiple news headlines that sometimes these bad actors are in our schools. And we want parents to pay close attention to what's happening in the school environment.
If you think about it, kids are in schools spending the most time away from parents. They are surrounded by other adults. And we want parents to be making sure that they're being noticed, that they're involved in their kids’ lives, just take several steps to make sure that their child's not vulnerable to being preyed upon. And to be very aware that even though there are some well- intended educators, there are others that tend to exploit the role of authority to have access to kids and begin the grooming process.
What are the biggest risks to child safety? And I imagine there could be many things.
Yeah, I would say, from what we've seen, especially with kids, turning to social media to express your vulnerabilities, our kids want to feel heard, they want to be seen. And it's become very evident by turning to social media and using that as a way to connect with others as a form of expressing themselves. And that for us has been very alarming because we know that there are a lot of kids who are feeling very alone and vulnerable.
And whether it's in person or online anytime a kid expresses vulnerabilities, it can really turn into a situation where they're being preyed upon. So we believe that while there are a lot of different factors on child safety, whether it's, you know, crossing the street, you know, we look at data that shows, you know, for example, child sexual abuse is one of the top adverse childhood experiences, and they tend to get amplified if a kid is in underserved community, or a person of color. So, you know, we would want parents to really pay close attention to the adults that are close. And sometimes when it comes to child safety that gets overlooked, because we tend to put our kids in the hands of people that we perceive to trust. So I'd say any situation where a parent might be overly trusting of an individual, even if it's human nature, we think it's a great first step to child safety.
And I wonder if the dangers, especially in terms of child sexual abuse, have those dangers gotten worse? Or is it just that perhaps we hear it more often, now that it's being more open to discussion?
I would say that the issue of child sexual abuse has always been there. Even you know, with really famous books, like Tthe Body Keeps the Score, that really breaks down the understanding of trauma, and PTSD, for example, coming out of child sexual abuse was not always so understood of what trauma looks like the after effects of child sexual abuse, and more importantly, who are the predators and what are their characteristics. And I would say that in the six years that we've been doing this work, the word grooming, for example, at first was this terminology that wasn't really as understood. And now, youth and the way the language is being incorporated into Illinois policy and legislation, the word grooming is included, it's being defined, it's being understood.
There's just been so much more information that's been reaching now, what we like to believe we've been able to do through our organizations really taking it from every level at a white paper, for example, or medical journals, and really reaching parents and the masses with digestible information to help people understand, what the predator profile is, for example, so would say that there's a lot more information, there's a lot more data. You know, we've heard from the #MeToo movement, we're building on that with the KidsToo movement. So kids are believed and prioritized that we believe there's just enough examples now, of real experiences that folks have had to endure. And social media has helped bring more of this reality to light that is helping us do our job and equip parents to protect our children.