Child sexual abuse is preventable; Biology is not destiny

By: Sharon Hirsch, Prevent Child Abuse NC President & CEO
Posted: November 18, 2019

Child sexual abuse IS preventable and biology is not destiny. Our collective failure to focus research, policy and programs on preventing child sexual abuse is damaging children’s developing brains and bodies and is costing all of us an enormous amount of money downstream in our criminal justice, health care and other systems.

At PCANC we focus on primary prevention by building Protective Factors to increase the capacity of parents, agency professionals and communities to support and strengthen families to prevent abuse from ever happening. In that context, our work has largely focused on four of the five protective factors: knowledge of parenting and child development, parental resilience, social connections and concrete supports in times of need.

To truly focus upstream to prevent child sexual abuse, we, collectively, must focus much more attention – in research, policy and practice – and therefore money – on building the social and emotional competence of our children. I challenge you to think strategically about the role you can play to do just that.

Building the social and emotional competence of our children must be built on a foundation of good data. Our systems for reporting and tracking child abuse and neglect across Division of Social Services, Child Advocacy Centers, and law enforcement need to be improved so that we know more about the true scope of child sexual abuse in NC.

  • Do we know the average ages of predators?
  • Do we know the average age of child sexual abuse victims?
  • Do we know the true prevalence of child sexual abuse in NC or are we relying on national statistics?
  • Are we looking at data through a racial equity lens?

Our policy makers will demand data, and rightly so. We need the data to target and measure interventions and prevention programs. That means we must invest in data systems.

That is challenge number one.

Building the social and emotional competence of our youth must begin with our youngest children. We know that if children learn early about healthy relationships and empathy for others, their brains will be wired for healthy relationships as they grow through adolescents and adulthood. This can have a win-win impact of children growing up to resist predators and to prevent the development of predators.

To do this in NC, we have to raise awareness about both child sexual abuse and the research on what works to prevent it. Social norms will have to change to support investments in programs that focus on healthy relationship skills – including healthy sexual relationships.

Dr. Letourneau reminded us that the evidence base is not as strong for child sexual abuse programming as it is for other prevention programs. We need NC research institutions in public health, social work and psychiatry to focus on creating interventions and programs targeted to preventing child sexual abuse – and we need the philanthropic community to support pilots and research.

That is challenge number two.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not focus on our individual responsibilities to be a connection for the children in our communities. All the research on this is clear – children who have stable, safe, nurturing relationships in their lives with both their parents and within caring adults in their communities, build social and emotional skills. Not only that, but their community looks out for them and is better able to identify signs of potential grooming or abuse.

That is challenge number three.

Child Sexual Abuse Learning Convening

Pictured (left to right): Dr. Sherika Hill, PCANC President & CEO Sharon Hirsch, Dr. Amaya Jackson, and PCANC Policy Director Melea Rose Waters.

We all have a role – as individuals, as researchers, as parents, as funders, as policy makers and as shapers. On October 19, a statewide learning convening was held on child sexual abuse prevention. Presenters included:

The event was co-convened by Prevent Child Abuse NC (PCANC), the Children’s Advocacy Centers of NC, The Redwoods Group, NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault, NC Child, NC Alliance of YMCAs and the YMCA of the Triangle.

Your final challenge is to watch the video above from the statewide learning event and take the time to think strategically about the role you and your organization can play in building a system to prevent child sexual abuse – and engage with us at PCANC and the other organizations involved in planning the statewide learning event on child sexual abuse prevention.

Presentation 1 by Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

Presentation 2 by Dr. Lisa Amaya-Jackson, Duke Medical Center and Center for Child and Family Health.

Presentation 3 by Dr. Sherika Hill, Duke University and Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.

Presentation 4 by Sharon Hirsch, Prevent Child Abuse NC President & CEO

Please contact Sharon Hirsch at with questions.