Finding a Safe Harbor for Children

Last night on Twitter I saw more than a few tweets asking “is no place  safe to leave children with adults alone”. These questions came out in response to the Penn State Scandal where a respected coach was preying on young boys and the firings as a result.

The answer to the question of “is no place safe to leave children with adults alone” is probably no. Not as we currently function as a society anyway. There are monsters and predators in all walks of life that have every job imaginable, we can focus on the ones in the churches and the schools but children are taken advantage of every day by people in all different fields of work.

As a victim – I hate that word so lets start over.

As someone who was sexually molested when I was younger I was thinking last night what could have prevented it from happening? Was there something my parents could have said or done to keep me safe? Would it have been better if I’d been secluded from others for all of my growing years so I couldn’t get hurt? Was there a magic word that wasn’t uttered? a prayer? None of those things would have mattered. Some parents are child predators, some relatives, and keeping me locked away from the rest of the world would only serve to make me that more vulnerable when I was released.

What might have helped, and I’m just speculating on hindsight here, is a better understanding of sex. That sounds a bit out there I know, but when I was molested I hadn’t even had “health education” class yet and the only things I knew about sex were from the photos I saw in some dirty magazines one of my Mom’s friends or an uncle had in the basement (none of which were male on male sex). I was completely ignorant about all of it so when it was happening at the beginning I was mostly just confused. Pedophiles are very good at convincing the child of a few things, some work by coercion some by seduction, but they all get what they want out of it – the innocence of the child.

For me, I was conned into thinking he actually loved me and that’s why he wanted to do those things to me. It never occurred to me that if he loved only me why was he doing it to the other 15 boys in town. He was smart, after the first night he fondled me, before working up to more sexual things he had a cover story that he fed my Mom that she bought – in her defense it was a pretty good story – and I was there when he told her and had learned early on that I wasn’t to contradict adults.

I’ve digressed here a bit I think. I’m not a parent, but things that might have helped me I’ll list below.

I think if we want to have our children be safer out there in a world with monsters we need to talk to them more about sex earlier – let them know we’re open to talk with them about anything weird that’s going on. Let them know that any naked secrets are bad secrets and any time they feel uncomfortable they should feel free to talk to us. We need to communicate with them and understand what’s going on in their world regularly. I don’t think kids should be left alone with an adult for a long period of time or at several different times over a long period. Children shouldn’t spend the majority of their free time with someone older than them.

We also need adults that don’t turn a blind eye when a question is raised. Just because that person is from the military, church, school, or hospital doesn’t make them incapable of doing horrible things. If your kids pull away, start acting differently, bring up reasons to not hang out with someone – there might be something deeper there.

What happened to me and has happened to millions of other kids in the world doesn’t have to happen. But if it does happen, those kids need real heroes to be there and stop the monsters. Be a real hero.


Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline  1-800-4-A-CHILD

Child Abuse Prevention Association:

National Child Abuse Hotlines:

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse:

2 thoughts on “Finding a Safe Harbor for Children

  1. Keith Smith, Stranger Abduction Sexual Assault Survivor and Child Safety Expert Shares “5 Steps You Can Take to Keep Kids Safe”

    For the past 15 years, I have been a member of the board of directors of one of New Jersey’s most respected child advocacy agencies providing crisis intervention counseling services to child victims of sexual abuse, 6 of those 15 years as Chairman of the Board. As I write this article, I’m writing not as a board member, social worker, psychologist or academic. I write this article as an adult male survivor of childhood sexual violence.

    In 1974, at the age of 14, I was abducted, beaten and raped by a stranger, a recidivist, pedophile predator hunting for boys in my childhood hometown of Lincoln, Rhode Island. Although my attacker was arrested and indicted, he never went to trial. He never went to trial because he was brutally beaten to death in the streets of Providence before his court date. Thirty-six years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

    I’m writing not to tell my story, but to share my personal experience and what I’ve learned over the years, to help people understand the personal and societal effects of childhood sexual abuse and to share with you, 5 Steps You Can Take to Keep Kids Safe.

    Children who are victims of sexual abuse often resort to inappropriate behaviors to cope as they suffer through physical, emotional, behavioral and social problems directly related to their abuse. Some turn to drugs and alcohol, drop out of school, run away from home, suffer from eating disorders, sleeping disorders, personality disorders, stress, anxiety, depression, disassociation, post-traumatic stress syndrome and life threatening sexually transmitted disease.

    Some children have difficulty forming trusting relationships, resort to physical violence, sexual promiscuity and inappropriate and sometimes criminal sexually reactive behavior. Some resort to cutting, self-mutilation and in the most extreme cases they’ve murdered their abuser while others contemplate, attempt or commit suicide.

    Directly attributable to their sexual abuse, victims often suffer these enduring problems throughout their adolescence and into adulthood, many suffering through decades of silence, never disclosing their abuse.

    But why not? Why don’t they disclose?

    Sexually abused children and adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse remain silent out of misplaced guilt, fear, shame, embarrassment and under threat of violence from their perpetrators, threats of violence directed at the child or their family. In time, some victims of childhood sexual abuse get the strength to come forward, the strength to speak out, the strength to face the demons that haunt them and the perpetrator of their abuse, while many remain silent, living with the debilitating, destructive side effects forever, never disclosing their abuse to anyone.

    It saddens me to say that I believe sex crimes committed against children will never stop. The life altering physical, emotional, behavioral and social side effects of sexual abuse, suffered by children into adulthood, last a lifetime. With the personal and societal cost of childhood sexual abuse so high, it’s necessary for parents, grandparents and anyone with responsibility for the health and safety of a child to be aware of 5 Steps You Can Take to Keep Kids Safe.


    Five Steps You Can Take to Keep Kids Safe

    Step 1. Know the Facts

    Approximately 30% of children who are sexually abused are abused by blood-relative family members; parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

    An incremental 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone known to them, non-family members including neighbors, teachers, coaches, clergy, instructors, camp counselors, baby-sitters, step-parents, older kids in the neighborhood and friends of the family.

    Fewer than 10% of children who are sexually abused are abused by strangers.

    Less than 1% of children who are sexually abused are abducted and assaulted by strangers. Although very real, and it happened to me, the “Stranger Danger” risk of a child being abducted and sexually assaulted by a stranger is very low.

    While “Stranger Danger” abductions and sexual assault are rare, the risk is very high. Odds are 50-50 if a child is abducted and sexually assaulted by a stranger, and the abduction lasts over 3 hours, the child will be murdered.

    While we teach our kids to be aware of strangers, the facts show that over 90% of sexual assaults perpetrated against children are committed by someone known to the child. Since that’s the case, the risk you face may not be from the stranger at the park, but from the very person you allow to take your child to the park.

    Step 2. Know the Signs

    There are physical, emotional and behavioral signs that could indicate sexual abuse.

    Physical signs include bruises, swelling, pain, rashes, cuts, bed wetting, self-mutilation, excessive weight gain or excessive weight loss.

    Emotional signs manifest themselves when a normally happy, healthy, social child suddenly becomes withdrawn, sullen, sad or depressed. Or when a child experiences recurring nightmares, is unable or unwilling to sleep or experiences and discusses thoughts of suicide.

    Behavioral signs can be seen when a child becomes excessively combative or exceptionally defiant. Some children no longer want to do things they liked to do or no longer want to be with people they liked to spend time with in the past. Behavioral signs can also appear in the form of age inappropriate sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide attempts.

    Be aware that sometimes there are no signs at all.
    While the presence of some of these physical, emotional or behavioral signs may be associated with, or dismissed as “adolescence,” we should be aware they are well known, documented warning signs of sexual abuse.

    Step 3. Know What to Do

    Since over 90% of sex crimes committed against children are committed by either family members or someone known to the child, we should minimize the amount of alone time any child spends in one-on-one situations with an adult.

    Demand that adults with access to children involved in school, school bus transportation, extracurricular activities, sport programs, summer camps, music, dance, gymnastics, skating or other one-on-one teaching lessons are subject to mandatory background checks.

    Don’t leave children in the care of adults with known alcohol or drug problems. Nothing more needs to be said.

    Understand why a child might not tell. Children remain silent because of manipulation and misplaced guilt, shame, fear and to protect others. If you suspect abuse and your child won’t tell, don’t assume abuse isn’t happening. If you suspect abuse, trust your instinct, understand why a child might not tell and get help.

    Use positive stories in the news as a catalyst for discussion. When you hear about the next Amber Alert, discuss it with your child. Let kids know that there is a system in place that alerts adults and law enforcement that a child needs help. The next time the news reports a missing child being reunited with their family, talk about it. Fear is the tool of the perpetrator. As scared as a child may be during an assault, or an abduction, if they know that people are looking for them, if they know people are going to help them, the child may find some peace and hope in those thoughts. Positive stories in the news, discussed with children before they need to rely on them, may just be the hope they need to get through their own experience.

    Tell your child now, that you will believe them, they can trust you and you will help them. One way perpetrators manipulate their child victim is by telling the child no one will believe them. If a child knows before they’re abused, that you will believe them, that they can trust you and that you will help them, you’ve taken away the perpetrators leverage over the innocent child.

    Step 4. Know Where to Go

    If you suspect child sexual abuse, anonymous and confidential help is available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consider reaching out to ChildHelp at 1-800-4-A-Child. You can visit their website at or call RAINN, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE. RAINN’s website is

    Step 5. Know What to Say

    I pray that you’ll never, ever need to know what to say, but should a child ever disclose to you that they’ve been sexually abused, the child needs to hear you say, I believe you. You can trust me. I will help you.

    Keith Smith, the author of Men in My Town, is a Fortune 500 executive, an advocate for Child Victims of Sexual Abuse and a Survivor of a Stranger Abduction Sexual Assault. The story of Keith’s assault and his transition from sexual assault victim to survivor has been featured in newspapers and magazines and his program, “5 Steps You Can Take to Keep Kids Safe” has been discussed on radio and television. Keith has lobbied government officials to prevent cutbacks to programs serving children and he’s testified before the New Jersey State Senate Judiciary Committee seeking to eliminate the statute of limitations in civil action relating to sex crimes against children. Keith was one of 200 men who appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s award-winning show on Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.

    More information is available on the web at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s