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Can Body Safety Programs Help Identify and Prevent Child Abuse?

Can Body Safety Programs Help Identify and Prevent Child Abuse?

Keeping kids safe from harm is the responsibility of adults, but recognizing when abuse is happening isn’t always clear or easy. With child sexual abuse (CSA) and violence, many victims do not disclose the harm they experienced until years later. Sometimes, they never disclose. That’s often because perpetrators intimidate or coerce them into keeping the abuse secret.

So, how do we prevent abuse if we seldom identify it early, let alone talk about in our day-to-day lives?

If you are concerned about a child that may be experiencing violence, learn how to make a report here.

Educating Kids on Body Safety

When we create safe environments to talk about bodies, consent, and harm, children are equipped to come forward when safety rules are broken. In conjunction with educating adults on how to respond to disclosure of abuse supportively, this is an important pathway to bring conversations on abuse out into the open.

Minnesota Requirements for Child Abuse Prevention Education

In Minnesota, Erin’s Law encourages schools to provide CSA prevention education but does not recommend any programs or provide direction on how to identify high-quality curricula. However, the number of programs that educate children on body safety is multiplying. A quick Google search will return several pages of resulting programs.

At the local level, it can be confusing or overwhelming for organizations and school districts to assess their options for high-quality body safety programs and implement them successfully. To that end, we analyzed the current state of the evidence in child abuse prevention research.

Identifying High-Quality Body Safety Programs

That’s why the Alliance undertook a review of existing curricula intended for implementation in the elementary school setting. Providing body safety education in the classroom supports increased knowledge about bodies, autonomy, consent, and how to talk to a trusted adult when someone breaks a safety rule. Let’s take a first look at some of the criteria that high-quality programs include.

What Does the Research Say About Child Abuse Prevention?

The peer-reviewed research on body safety education and child sexual abuse prevention is continuously evolving and is showing some positive impacts, but it is not conclusive.

Scholars have identified several program qualities and practices that hold promise for educating children effectively about body safety. To summarize the state of the evidence, we broke down the existing research into three categories to evaluate:

Structure: The way the curriculum is set up.

  • Number of lessons and instruction time for each grade
  • Inclusion of parents and caregivers in the process
  • Formal training for those who will deliver the lessons and for school personnel
  • Program availability in multiple languages
  • Diversity of identities represented in the curriculum
  • Cultural responsiveness
  • Adaptability for children with special needs.

Content: The information included in the curriculum to teach children about body safety.

  • Core concepts: body safety, body autonomy, consent, and safety rules
  • Identification of private body parts
  • Use of anatomically correct language
  • Appropriate and inappropriate touches
  • How to recognize trusted adults
  • How to tell a trusted adult if a person breaks the child’s body safety rules
  • Identifying emotions and feelings that tell us something feels unsafe

Delivery: How the program is taught in the classroom.

  • Instruction methods include a variety of learning modalities
  • Instructors model behaviors that support body safety
  • Opportunities for children to practice applying concepts.

In completing our evaluation, we also took into account the information listed on the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare, an organization whose mission is to advance the effective implementation of evidence-based practices for children and families involved with the child welfare system. The National Children’s Alliance has also outlined criteria for prevention programming and provides a list of curricula that meet their optional standard on child abuse prevention.

Prevention Programming Can Help Create Safe Environments

The prevention programs we reviewed should not be considered a standalone solution to child sexual abuse. However, the research shows that programs that follow the criteria we outlined above can have a positive impact in helping children learn about their bodies, how to identify unsafe situations, and how to seek help from a safe adult. In future blog entries, we’ll go through what we learned in the research more in-depth. Until then, this bibliography compiles all the studies we reviewed during the course of the project.