People who contributed to this story will tell you that it is hard to talk about child-sexual abuse.
“Nobody wants to talk about this, and they will only talk about it after something bad happens and it hits the news,” said Jennifer Falcone, a survivor of child abuse and a determined advocate for open dialogue, training of adults working with children and respective changes in school districts’ polices.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education reports that 10 percent of students in public schools have experienced inappropriate sexual conduct from adults in the school system.
With more than 15,000 students enrolled in the Lynn Public Schools, this means that more than 1,500 students in Lynn have experienced or may be at risk of experiencing sexual misconduct or abuse by an adult in their school, said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MassKids), the oldest state-based, private child-advocacy organization in the country, which currently focuses its work on addressing child-sexual abuse.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a precarious situation for the children who are at risk of sexual abuse outside of schools. The National Sexual Assault Hotline reported in March 2020 that half of its calls were from minors. Two-thirds of children said their abusers were family members and 79 percent said they were living with the person hurting them.
Virtual learning over the course of the pandemic has reduced opportunities for teachers, school nurses and social workers to detect signs of abuse in their students and has similarly reduced opportunities for children to disclose abuse and safety concerns, Bernier said.
MassKids’ mission is to publicize the problem and educate as many communities and youth-serving organizations in Massachusetts as possible about child-sexual abuse, in order to reduce and prevent it. The organization decided to partner up with LEO, Inc., a Lynn nonprofit working with children and families, and other stakeholders in Lynn and bring its Enough Abuse Campaign to the city.
In 2021, MassKids received a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation to work with local leaders, citizens and survivors of child-sexual abuse in Lowell, Lynn and Medford. The organization is looking to partner with the Lynn school district and any youth-serving organizations in the city to offer its free, interactive, research-based online-training course and other companion resources and tools to help them revise their safety policies, model a code of conduct and educate as many teaching and non-teaching staff members as possible.
“As long as we are not talking about it, we are giving abusers free access to our kids and we are not challenging them,” said Bernier. “What I want to make sure is that we get the Lynn community to become really knowledgeable not just about the problem, but about what they can do specifically to prevent it from happening or if they start to identify children that might be experiencing this.”
Child-sexual abuse ranges from touching ― like fondling, kissing or sexual assault ― to non-touching offenses such as sexually-explicit text messages and emails, flirting and grooming behavior.
The public often thinks that individuals who sexually abuse children are pedophiles, Bernier said. However, that is not always correct.
“Pedophilia is a very specific, mental-health diagnosable problem,” said Bernier.
It is characterized by compulsive behavior that is reinforced every time an individual sexually abuses a child and leads pedophiles to violate many children over the course of their lifetime.
“The likelihood that they commit a crime again is very high,” Bernier said, which is why pedophiles living in the communities are a risk to children.
However, statistics show that about one-third of child-sexual-abuse cases happen in the family.
Nicole Williams, 41, from Malden, was sexually abused by her stepfather from the age of 10 until she finally told her mother at 19 years old.
Williams’ biological father was an alcoholic, and the abuser took advantage of that situation to present himself as a savior of the family. He abused Williams when her mother, who worked night shifts, was not around.
He manipulated Williams and threatened her by telling her that if she told anyone she would go to jail, that he would kill her mother, or he would kidnap her younger brother and take him to Guatemala, his home country.
“I didn’t think anybody was going to believe me; I was terrified,” said Williams. “I thought he was going to kidnap my brother.”
Her grandmother asked her a few times if he was hurting her, but Williams was scared to say anything. Williams, a very social child, became detached, often didn’t want to be home, and tried to sleep outside or run away.
Eventually she was able to record a conversation with the stepfather, where he admitted to having sex with her. When she played the tape for her mother at the age of 19, her abuser immediately fled to another state.
“It affected everything in my life, to be honest. The way I interact with people, the way I learn, my relationships,” Williams said.
Later in life, she found out that her school friend was going through a similar situation of sexual abuse with her own father.
Another third of child-sexual-abuse cases are committed by adults in the child’s circle of trust ― like a teacher, a coach or a priest ― who have access to children.
“Most of the people who abuse children look normal, like we do,” Bernier said.
Often abusers are very well liked, such as popular teachers who bend the rules for students by letting them call the teacher by their first name, giving them special privileges and bringing them treats.
“That is a way to build trust,” said Bernier. “So that when the abuse happens, people say, ‘Oh, well, he would never do anything like that. He is very popular. He is very nice.’”
There are also “opportunistic” abusers who don’t strategize or plan to sexually abuse children, but they tend to find comfort in relationships with young people or children who don’t demand much of them, unlike adults. The abusers might be too timid or impaired to find intimacy with their adult peers.
Falcone, from Longmeadow, was sexually abused from the age of 11 to 13 by a male administrator in her school. When she joined a new junior high school in eastern Massachusetts in sixth grade, he started to compliment her and give her extra attention, which quickly turned into molestation, rape, and then sex trafficking within the walls of the school building.
Falcone’s primary abuser used his position of authority at the school to pull her out of classes and sell her to other men. He physically, verbally, and sexually abused her into compliance, she said.
“I didn’t keep quiet because he was being nice to me,” said Falcone. “I kept quiet because I was terrified of him.”
Her parents didn’t suspect anything, writing off anything strange in her behavior as physical and emotional changes brought on by the teenage years.
She believes other teachers must have noticed that something was not right, but they were afraid of that man and didn’t want to stand up to him.
Falcone’s abuse stopped abruptly after one new female gym teacher told her abuser that he could not take Falcone out of her class.
“And that was enough to stop the abuse in my situation,” Falcone said.
Just like Williams, Falcone said that the sexual abuse she endured as a child affected her whole life.
“I think when you have an experience like that when you are younger, especially an experience that you are not supposed to talk about and that you carry a lot of shame about, it affects every decision you make in your life going forward,” she said. “I dealt with a lot of anxiety and depression after, which I now know is chronic PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).”
She said the experience affected what college she chose to go to, her major, and the people she chose to hang out with. She constantly was feeling the fear of not being safe.
“I was in a school where I was supposed to be protected and that was the place where these awful things happened that completely destroyed my sense of self, my sense of being safe in the world,” Falcone said.
According to MassKids, 87 percent of known child-sexual abuse is committed by men, but women commit 13 percent of these crimes as well.
Although a lot of schools do preliminary screening of candidates, the background checks on abusers often ― as in more than 80 percent of cases ― come back clean, Bernier said.
That is why MassKids is pushing for legislation in Massachusetts that would mandate schools to adopt abuse-prevention policies and codes of conduct as well as training for adults and students in all schools and youth organizations across the state.
MassKids is advocating a mandatory, standardized questionnaire in schools to be filled out by job applicants with questions ranging from “Have you ever been the subject of an investigation for sexual misconduct?” to “Will you give us permission to ask your previous employee employer about this?”
The organization wants Massachusetts to give schools immunity from lawsuits for sharing information about sexual misconduct and prohibit the practice of “passing the trash,” when schools enter into confidentiality agreements and allow sexual abusers to resign, sometimes even paying them to leave. Currently, these individuals are free to go get a job at another school.
As for parents worrying about their children, Bernier said she always advises parents to follow their gut and assume that if they feel something funny is happening, it very well might be what is going on.
“If you have a funny feeling about some relationship that your daughter is having with an adult outside the home, ask questions,” Bernier said. “We tend to trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt and I think that gets us into trouble sometimes, because we can’t possibly hold the thought in our mind that somebody that looks normal, that is supposed to be trustworthy could do anything like that.”