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Y Blog: Six Questions with Mary Murphy on Child Abuse Prevention at the Y

April 3, 2017

April is Child Abuse Prevention & Awareness month, a nationwide effort to inform families and youth-serving professionals about the signs of abuse and how to respond.

And the need for awareness is great: According to Darkness to Light, a nationally recognized non-profit abuse prevention organization, and YMCA of the USA partner, 1 in 10 children will experience some form of sexual abuse before they reach their 18th birthday. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone the child knows.

At the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston, Mary Murphy is leading awareness and response efforts on behalf of Y staff and the more than 1,000 families and children we serve.

Last fall, Mary became a certified Praesidium Guardian in child abuse risk management. Praesidium is a YMCA of the USA partner and nationally recognized leader in creating safe environments for kids.

Here she answers questions about abuse prevention and what the Y is doing to address this critical issue.

Q: The statistics show that child sexual abuse is happening at an alarming rate in all communities across the country. As a family-serving organization, what is the YMCA doing to prevent these crimes and build awareness?

Mary: YMCAs across the country have a tremendous opportunity to be leaders in their communities when it comes to child abuse awareness and prevention. At our Y alone we serve more than 1,000 families and children. It is our responsibility to ensure that we are providing a safe environment for those children, whether they are in childcare, camp, our fitness facilities, or sports programs.

To be successful, we must create and strengthen a culture of prevention, and we do this by following current research and best practices, as well as by engaging families, members, and the community in the conversation.

The more youth and adults we can educate on abuse prevention, the greater impact we can make in our community. 

Children need to know that if they tell you someone is hurting them or making them feel uncomfortable that you are going to listen and believe them.

The YMCA, both as a local organization and as a national organization, is really stepping up to the plate and collaborating with experts from Praesidium and Darkness to Light to strengthen our abuse prevention efforts.  I feel fortunate that I have been given the opportunity to lead this charge in our Y. 

My new role as a Chief Risk and HR Officer and as a Certified Praesidium Guardian allows me to focus on and be intentional about minimizing risk and protecting children from the horrible experience and lifelong effects of sexual abuse.   

Q: What do you enjoy most about this work?

Mary: I am very passionate about keeping children safe. Children deserve to live in a healthy environment where they can feel safe, protected, and nurtured. I love that I can take an active role in making a difference. If one child is spared the torment of sexual abuse, then we are successful…but it takes a community effort. 

Q: How are Y staff being trained to handle child sexual abuse?

Mary: Training starts right away, as soon as someone applies for a job at the Y. We make a conscious effort to advertise our stance on child abuse in our hiring documents. Once hired, staff and volunteers are trained in child sexual abuse prevention and appropriate touch as part of their onboarding process. They are trained to recognize the signs and how to react responsibly.

A key component to abuse prevention is to have clear policies in place.  Most often, you will not catch an abuser abusing; you will catch them breaking the rules or violating boundaries. 

The trainings and conversations don’t end at the time of hire. I recently became a facilitator for Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children Training Program. All of our staff will receive this additional training as part of our ongoing abuse prevention efforts.

Q: What is mandated reporting?

Mary: The YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston is a state-mandated reporter of child abuse. That means all staff and volunteers are required to file a report if they suspect abuse or neglect of a child, or if they have a reasonable cause to suspect that a child will be abused or neglected.

It is our duty to be vigilant.

You do not need proof to make a report, only reasonable suspicion.

Q: What happens when a staff member determines a report should be made? 

Mary: Under Maine law, a report would be made directly to Child Protective Services. Staff are oriented to our Mandated Reporting Procedures when they are hired. In my role, I can support staff and their supervisors by answering questions and offering information about how to go about making a report. To the extent that we can, we make a point to include and support families in the reporting process, as well. 

Q: Do you have any tips for how parents can better protect their families?

Mary: We have to teach our children how to protect themselves. We need to teach our children that it is never OK for someone to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable — and if this happens, they need to tell a trusted adult. We need to teach children what boundaries are and what good touch and bad touch is so that they will know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Children need to know that if they tell you someone is hurting them or making them feel uncomfortable that you are going to listen and believe them. This is one of the most common reasons children do not disclose that they are being abused: because they fear no one will believe them or that it is their fault. There is a misconception of “Stranger Danger” when, in reality, children are most often abused by someone they know and trust.

That said, often children won’t come right out and say they are being abused. As guardians and caregivers, we can spot the signs. For example, if a child experiences sudden changes in mood or becomes anxious about places and activities they once enjoyed; displays age-inappropriate behavior, particular if it’s sexual in nature; suddenly has money, toys, or gifts without reason; or, when it comes to younger children, has “accidents” that aren’t related to potty training.

These signs don't automatically mean abuse is happening, but they should be cause for concern. It is our duty to be vigilant. I encourage anyone in the care of children to visit the Darkness to Light website to learn more.

For questions about the YMCA's abuse prevention policies, contact Mary at mmurphy@alymca.org or call 207-795-4095.

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