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Protect children in detention from abuse

September 22, 2018

Hardly a week goes by without media reports of another case of child abuse — whether about the mass sexual abuse of young gymnasts or the thousands of children worldwide molested by clergy. As a nation, we reel from crisis to crisis without taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety and well-being of children. And often, just a little action can make a world of difference in breaking the abuse cycle.

The statistics are staggering: One in 10 children will be abused before the age of 18. Six out of 10 won’t report it, because they’re almost always abused by someone they know, love or trust. Child sexual abuse can happen anywhere, from elite prep schools to shelters full of children.

The chances of abuse increase when children are separated from their parents. And with the number of immigrant children under the care of the U.S. government at an all-time high, one cannot emphasize enough that we need to be extra vigilant to protect the most vulnerable.

Let’s be clear: Every adult has a moral obligation to protect children, and many also have a legal obligation. In Texas that statute reads, in part: “A person who has cause to believe that a child has been adversely affected by abuse of neglect shall immediately make a report.” Professionals working with children have the highest duty. Regrettably many people working with children are not educated in the law, aware of simple prevention strategies or familiar with common signs of abuse.

There is no doubt that children who are separated from their families and being cared for by people they do not know are at higher risk for abuse. Research after Hurricane Katrina, for example, showed a spike in sexual abuse against women and minors who were in shelterlike environments. Anecdotal evidence from refugee camps around the world also show the same patterns.

Last week, NPR and the New York Times reported, based on data provided by the government, that as of September, 12,800 children were held in shelters without their families. That’s up from 2,400 children in May 2017. We cannot emphasize enough how vulnerable these children are and how they must be protected.

The keys to protecting our children from abuse are not complicated. They are not controversial. They are not hard to implement. If advocates are informed and trained, many tragedies can be avoided, or intervention can start promptly.

For that reason, the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services Texas have partnered to give those who become the advocates of these children the basic tools they would need to both spot and prevent abuse.

For the past three years, the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children has been delivering Darkness to Light’s “Stewards of Children” program to youth-serving organizations. “Stewards of Children” is the only evidence-informed child sexual abuse prevention training for adults in the country. Participants hear from survivors of sexual abuse and their families, and experts. The training is eye-opening.

RAICES Texas provides free and low-cost legal services to migrant children separated from their families. RAICES caseworkers and attorneys are often the only voice a child has moving through the legal system. In the absence of a loving parent or caretaker, caseworkers and child advocates become the first line of defense for children. It’s critical they know the signs of child sexual abuse.

This week, through a series of trainings in San Antonio, Houston and Austin, the foundation began working with RAICES Texas to train their caseworkers and attorneys in this important program.

The Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children and RAICES Texas are committed to being a voice for the vulnerable and voiceless by providing professionals additional tools for protecting the thousands of children ripped from their parents and held in detention. And if the tools are within our reach, it is our obligation to use them and make a difference in a child’s life.

Patricia Dailey Lewis is executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. Jonathan Ryan is executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. For more information on the Beau Biden Foundation, go to beaubidenfoundation.org/. For more information RAICES go to raicestexas.org.

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