There are three messages that would have changed my life if I’d known them back then.
Had I known these things, my teenage years would have been vastly different.
You see, between the ages of fourteen to sixteen I had every shred of dignity and self-worth stripped away from me by a serial paedophile.
While navigating the anxiety and self-doubt of a pubescent teenager, I suffered the physical and mental torture of weekly beatings and ritualised sexual abuse by a man now serving twenty-four years in protective custody.
A gruelling six weeks in court supported by family and friends back in 2011 saw this predator taken off the street and a significant risk to our community removed.
It very nearly killed me—thoughts of suicide being my only escape plagued me through to my mid-twenties. Others have not been as fortunate and sadly, thousands of stories will never be told.
The experience has made me stronger, it has given me a voice and most of all an undying determination, through education, to make sure our kids understand how to protect themselves.
We, as parents and protectors, must not bury our heads in the sand and assume this happens to other people’s kids. We need to teach our kids how to identify risk and respond to it.
So what are the three simple messages our kids need to hear?
1 – Be careful of big secrets. If someone is asking you to keep secrets and is asking you to do things that they want you to keep a secret, tell someone. Children must understand the difference between safe and unsafe secrets.
2 – No matter who they are or what authority they profess to have over you, there is no reason for them to invade your personal space, to want to see or touch your private parts.
3 – You will be believed, go and tell someone! Tell a teacher, a parent, the police. You will be believed. Tell and tell again.
It was this final message that perhaps would have been the most important one for me to have heard and believed.
Today, I’m a proud ambassador for Act for Kids, an organisation committed to putting little lives back together after abuse. The organisation’s preventative work is just as crucial.
Learn to be safe with Emmy and friends is a program delivered in Year 1 to teach kids these messages. We need to be discussing this stuff in school. We need to give our kids these lessons so they know they will be believed if something ever happens to them.
While Act for Kids does phenomenal work in treating children through its internationally renowned Integrated Therapy Program, we can look at changing generational cycles of abuse by giving children the education they need to keep safe and understand those three simple messages I wish I had known.
Learn to be safe with Emmy and friends has shown a clear relationship between the program and increases in protective behaviour knowledge – those children who participated in the program demonstrated increased protective behaviour knowledge over those who did not participate.
Early findings also indicate that children would be more likely to respond in a safe manner to unsafe situations, including hypothetical situations with risks of bullying, abuse and sexual assault, without increasing or decreasing child anxiety. Children who participated in the program also reported that they would disclose unsafe secrets to an adult.
95 per cent of 200 teachers reported that the program delivery, activities and resources exceeded their expectations.
Why is it critical that programs such as Emmy are funded at school? It’s because an astounding 94 per cent of children who are abused are harmed by someone they know and should be able to trust.
Currently, Act for Kids has invested $500,000 in the Emmy program. The support of the Vita Foundation has allowed this program to be extended nationally.
Since the 2007 launch of Learn to be safe with Emmy and friends, the five-week workshops have been presented to 164 primary schools throughout Australia, including repeat visits to selected schools.
A $5 million investment over three years would reach 150,000 kids.
Think of your children. Doesn’t every child deserve to have this critical protective education?
All children—and adults for that matter—should have a life free from abuse and neglect.
I believe the government should be funding Learn to be safe with Emmy and friends. But in their absence, we welcome foundations such as Vita Foundation and the Wilson Foundation in ensuring we’ve been able to reach more than 16,500 children.
The basic stranger danger messages are not enough. The world is a significantly more complex place than the one I grew up in and access to our kids has taken a digital twist too.
I survived but I lost so much. Witnessing others fondly recount their school life experience renders me silent.
I’m here to tell my story because prevention is so much better than cure. At the heart of prevention is education.
Harm to our children can be avoided. Teach our kids how to say “NO”. Teach them to go and get help. Let them know that no secret is too big to tell someone who can help you. Teach them to protect themselves. We can’t be there 24×7 after all.
Sascha Chandler is a partner at PwC and a National Ambassador for Act for Kids, a nonprofit that rebuilds the lives of little kids who have been traumatised, abused and neglected. One child is abused or neglected every 12 minutes in Australia. Learn more about the important work of Act for Kids by visiting the website or following on Facebook or Instagram.