• September/October 2001
  • Vol. 2, No. 5

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Vermont Prevents Child Sexual Abuse by Targeting Adults

Following a model pioneered by public health, a program in Vermont called Stop It Now! aims to prevent child sexual abuse by targeting its message to adults, including sexual abusers themselves.

Stop It Now! applies principles of social marketing and public education campaigns in ways similar to programs designed to prevent drinking and driving, smoking, and HIV transmission. Stop It Now! campaigns offer information about preventing the sexual abuse of children and steps that an abuser can take to get treatment and help.

The campaign was founded in 1992 by Fran Henry, a child sexual abuse survivor. Henry sought an alternative to prevention programs focused primarily on teaching children to protect themselves and to report abuse. According to the campaign's website, Stop It Now! is the first program that has "directly asked abusers to step forward or asked adults to confront abusers."

Stop It Now!'s national office is based in Haydenville, MA. The privately funded, pilot program in Vermont was launched with the assistance of the Safer Society Foundation, Inc. in Brandon, VT, in 1995 with three major components: Media, Systems Change, and Community Action.

Focus groups were used to plan an awareness-raising media campaign. Joan Tabachnick, Program Director for Stop It Now!, explained that one of the major thrusts was to get people to start talking about child sexual abuse. "We found that people were aware that child sexual abuse is a problem, but they didn't know what to do about it. What was even more clear was they didn't know how to talk about it," Tabachnick told the Children's Bureau Express. In Vermont's media campaign, which consists of public service announcements, posters, billboards, a website, and media events, Stop It Now! tried to be as explicit as possible. "When child sexual abuse is known, most people know they should report," explained Tabachnick. "When it is suspected, the action you should take is less clear. So in our media messages we try to name a specific [child] behavior that indicates abuse and name a specific action to take."

The campaign promotes an anonymous toll-free helpline, available to abusers and people who may know abusers. Offenders are assigned a confidential identification number that they can take to a clinician for psycho-sexual evaluation. If the clinician feels the caller would benefit from treatment, the offender can take the evaluation to a lawyer who will, in turn, report the crime to a prosecutor. Since reporting to the police may be too big a step for someone who only suspects child sexual abuse, the helpline was established as a systems change component.

The community action component of Stop It Now! Vermont consists of collaborating with other organizations providing services to families to reach adults at risk of child sexual abuse and people who know them. Since there is only one Stop It Now! coordinator for the entire State, these joint training and dialogue programs have been instrumental to the program's statewide outreach. A guidebook developed for the program on taking responsibility to stop child sexual abuse has received positive feedback from both treatment providers and from those affected by sexual abuse. It quotes focus group members, gives information on setting and respecting family boundaries, and recommends how adults can become more comfortable talking about this topic and taking action.

Stop It Now! adapted the prevention model used in Vermont for the urban and culturally diverse environment in Philadelphia. Launched in September 2000, Stop It Now! analyzed focus groups conducted at Philadelphia Health Services in the Latino community and by a communications firm, MEE Productions, among the African American community. The knowledge and ideas about child sexual abuse that arose from the discussions were used to develop culturally competent sexual abuse prevention programming. This included a brochure, posters, and billboards in Spanish. "When we looked around three years ago, we couldn't find any materials in Spanish focusing on child sexual abuse that addressed the abuser and people who knew the abuser," remarked Tabachnick. A series of posters in English and Spanish use the theme of games children play--such as Simon Says, Peek-A-Boo, and Hide & Seek--to convey the message that sexual abuse is no game.

Since Stop It Now! has not been able to find a partner to train and collaborate with in the African American community, that component of the project is on hold. Tabachnick is hopeful that recent outreach efforts to churches will help in this effort. She also noted that Stop It Now! is in the process of planning a child sexual abuse prevention program in Minnesota.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became involved in violence as a public health problem when a National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/ncipchm.htm) was established a decade ago. It covered the broad spectrum of violence and recently began to address child sexual abuse. It received a congressional appropriation to evaluate the Stop It Now! Vermont program from 1995 to 1997 and has recently begun an evaluation of the pilot program in Philadelphia. Tabachnick also noted that the CDC has been helpful in providing technical assistance and advice to Stop It Now! "It's really appropriate for government to see if innovative programs work from a scientific point of view," commented Tabachnick.

Another evaluation of Stop It Now! Vermont from September 1995 to December 1999, conducted by an independent research firm, revealed the program's success. The study found abusers will call for help and can stop the abuse, an increased number of adults are knowledgeable about child sexual abuse, and adults need better skills to stop abuse.

The results suggest adults need:

  • A clear and familiar vocabulary to be able to talk openly about child sexual abuse
  • A sense of what to do if they suspect a child is being sexually abused
  • Information and action path for someone who reports child sexual abuse, but lacks evidence or information to officially take the report.

Media efforts need to:

  • target men more than women
  • emphasize that treatment works
  • provide the warning signs of potential abuse.

For a detailed discussion of the findings from the Stop It Now! focus groups about child sexual abuse views among African Americans and Latinos in Philadelphia, see Child Maltreatment, Vol. 6, No. 2, May 2001.

Contact information:

Joan Tabachnick
Program Director
Stop It Now!
PO Box 495
Haydenville, MA 01039
Phone: 413-268-3096
Toll-free Helpline: 888-PREVENT (773-8368) (available M-F, 1-5pm, EST)
Fax: 413-268-3098
Email: info@stopitnow.com
Website: http://www.stopitnow.com

Related Items

Access these past issues of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml) for articles related to Stop It Now!:

  • Evaluation of a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program--Vermont, 1995-1997, 2/9/01, 50(05); 77-8, 87.
  • Perceptions of Child Sexual Abuse as a Public Health Problem--Vermont, September 1995, 8/29/97, 46(34); 801-803.

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