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Palisades forum shows how to prevent child sex abuse


Approximately one in 10 children endure physical sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.

About 90 percent of these victims are violated by someone they know.

A person the family trusts is the perpetrator in approximately 60 percent of the abuse cases.

That’s a sampling of the eye-opening statistics shared during a Jan. 23 community education forum at Palisades High School.

Led by the Jamison-headquartered nonprofit Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA), the purpose of the forum was to educate community members about how to prevent sexual abuse of minors – and what to do to identify it and get help when the crime occurs.

Rich Heffernan, principal of Palisades High School, said that secondary and elementary school faculty in the Palisades School District have gone through similar training this school year. A goal of the education session was to provide locals with the same valuable knowledge and tools, Heffernan said.

“We want to work together as a community to keep our children safe,” he told the Herald.

The forum came several weeks after state police charged a former Palisades High School teacher, who was also a tennis coach, with indecent exposure and invasion of privacy for allegedly taking photos up the skirts of three students and then posting the images online. Francis Reppert, 26, of Quakertown, also photographed himself naked at the school, police charge.

News of the Reppert case came within days of another former Palisades High School teacher, Christian Willman, being sentenced to six to 12 years in state prison for sexually assaulting female students at Palisades. Willman also victimized students at Parkland High School.

During the Jan. 23 forum, NOVA centered discussion around a workbook that detailed five tangible steps to protect children.

The first step emphasized learning the facts about sexual abuse of children. That includes understanding that such abuse is any sexual act between an adult and a minor, or between two minors when one exerts power over the other, thereby forcing, coercing or persuading the victim to engage in a sexual act. It can include non-contact acts, such as exhibitionism, sexualized texts and voyeurism.

In addition to the stats mentioned earlier, other notables included that 40 percent of children who are abused are the victims of older, more powerful children.

Step two stressed the importance of taking proactive measures to minimize the opportunity for abuse to occur. That includes eliminating isolated, one-on-one situations between adults and minors, as well such situations between older youth and younger children.

In professional and volunteer settings that involve work with minors, it also means screening out people who might abuse children through rigorous background checks, in-person interviews that stress boundaries with minors, and doing due diligence on personal and professional references.

Step three advised parents to hold open, age-appropriate conversations with their children about their bodies, what sexual abuse is, and boundary violations. Such violations can include everything from touching of private parts and speaking in a sexual way, to someone asking the child to keep secrets and to be alone with the person, to providing gifts and special privileges that are exclusive, excessive or kept private.

Step four was about recognizing the signs of abuse. These can include emotional/behavioral tip-offs, such as withdrawal, fear/anxiety, depression, unexplained anger, or excessive striving for overachievement. Alcohol/drug abuse, nightmares, grade drop offs, bullying and self-harm can be other signs. Physical signs are not common, but can include bruising, bleeding, redness and bumps, or scabs around the genitals, anus or mouth.

Step five zeroed in on how to react responsibly when a child discloses abuse, as well as when abuse is otherwise discovered or suspected. If a child discloses that he or she been abused, for example, the responsible adult offers supports, doesn’t overreact, listens calmly and openly, affirms that they believe what the child says is true, emphasizes that it’s not the child’s fault and, among other things, promptly reports the abuse to the police and/or child protective services.

“We must proactively make choices that help children,” said NOVA’s Pat McLaughlin.

Call the ChildLine and Abuse Registry Intake Unit at 800-932-0313 to report abuse.