Com­mu­nity fo­rum ad­dresses signs, ways to talk about sex­ual abuse

More than 80 at­tended event in wake of teacher’s aide as­sault in­dict­ment

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU jan­fen­son-comeau@somd­news.com

More than 80 peo­ple at­tended a pub­lic town hall meet­ing to share in­for­ma­tion about child sex­ual abuse Tues­day evening in the wake of an in­dict­ment against a for­mer Charles County Pub­lic Schools in­struc­tional aide.

On June 30, Car­los Bell, 30, of Wal­dorf was charged with sec­ond-de­gree as­sault and pro­duc­tion of child pornog­ra­phy af­ter law en­force­ment of­fi­cials al­legedly re­cov­ered im­ages of Bell sex­u­ally as­sault­ing chil­dren from his elec­tronic de­vices. Bell is a

for­mer in­struc­tional aide at Ben­jamin Stod­dert Mid­dle School and track coach at La Plata High School, as well as coach­ing other com­mu­nity sports groups.

At least seven chil­dren have al­legedly been vic­tim­ized by Bell, ac­cord­ing to the Charles County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, which has said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing.

Abena McAl­lis­ter, founder of Women of Ac­tion Charles County, part­nered with The Church @ St. Charles to hold a com­mu­nity town hall meet­ing with ex­perts in de­tect­ing and pre­vent­ing sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren.

“We thought it was im­por­tant to do this be­cause many of us are moth­ers, and as moth­ers, as par­ents, as a com­mu­nity, we need to have the tools to pro­tect our chil­dren, and my goal is to en­sure that ev­ery­one leaves more in­formed than when they came and equipped with the tools they need to en­sure our kids are safe,” McAl­lis­ter said.

Fred Cau­dle, pas­tor of The Church @ St. Charles, said he was hor­ri­fied and sick­ened when he learned of the abuse al­le­ga­tions.

“When the news first broke of this, we were con­cerned as a church, my heart was bro­ken as a pas­tor, and one of our first re­ac­tions was to want to bring the com­mu­nity to­gether, not nec­es­sar­ily to talk about the past and what ‘could have’ or ‘should have’ with­out all the in­for­ma­tion avail­able, but how are we go­ing to go for­ward in our com­mu­nity, to­gether?” Cau­dle said.

Kim Cook, a faith-based coun­selor with Ash­ton-based Cen­trePointe Coun­sel­ing Inc., said chil­dren may have ques­tions about the ac­cu­sa­tions and what hap­pened, and it is im­por­tant to give them a space to ask those ques­tions.

“The chil­dren have ques­tions, and we may not have the an­swers yet, and it’s OK to say you don’t know,” Cook said. “Give them the chance to ask ques­tions, the space where they’re free to ask ques­tions, where ques­tions are wel­comed, and at the same time try not to give easy, pat an­swers.”

Dianna Ab­ney, health of­fi­cer for the Charles County De­part­ment of Health, said it is im­por­tant to give ac­cu­rate, age ap­pro­pri­ate in­for­ma­tion to chil­dren, and not hide be­hind col­or­ful eu­phemisms.

“Use proper names for proper parts,” Ab­ney said. “You shouldn’t call it a cookie or a purse or a tal­leywacker or any other name to call it … it’s con­fus­ing for them, and that can cause prob­lems.”

Ab­ney said that if a par­ent is un­com­fort­able talk­ing with their chil­dren about such mat­ters, ask a pro­fes­sional.

“Keep with your per­sonal be­liefs, your morals, but an­swer things in age-ap­pro­pri­ate, true sen­tences,” Ab­ney said. “If you’re un­com­fort­able, talk to your pe­di­a­tri­cian, or fam­ily prac­ti­tioner; we’ll take it from there. We’ll talk to them about it for you, with you in the room so we can help you feel con­fi­dent talk­ing in these sit­u­a­tions.”

Cather­ine Mey­ers, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Chil­dren in La Plata, said it is very rarely a stranger who sex­u­ally as­saults a child, and that sex­ual preda­tors spend a lot of time gain­ing the trust of chil­dren, their fam­i­lies, their school and their com­mu­nity prior to any as­sault.

“They are the peo­ple who are the most help­ful, the nicest peo­ple, the best babysit­ters. They are so good with chil­dren that we think it’s safe to leave our chil­dren with them,” Mey­ers said. “It’s not al­ways the per­son you think it is, it may be the per­son you would never, ever, ever ex­pect.”

Mey­ers said par­ents should try to be in­volved when their child takes part in sports or other af­ter school ac­tiv­i­ties.

“If you’re get­ting a lot of re­quests for your child to stay af­ter school for spe­cial time, or ex­tra coach­ing af­ter sports prac­tices, ex­tra time at the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church group, pay at­ten­tion to that,” Mey­ers said.

Mey­ers said the Cen­ter for Chil­dren will be pro­vid­ing train­ing for every em­ployee of Charles County Pub­lic Schools.

Wanda Collins, in-home ser­vices ad­min­is­tra­tor for the Charles County De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices, said the most im­por­tant thing a par­ent can do is com­mu­ni­cate with their child, not just when they sus­pect some­thing is wrong, but all the time.

“Your abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with your chil­dren is key, and how they can feel that they can trust those that are iden­ti­fied as trusted in­di­vid­u­als, be­come key in terms of us find­ing out about abuse or ne­glect,” Collins said.

STAFF PHOTO BY JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU

Dr. Dianna Ab­ney, health of­fi­cer for the Charles County De­part­ment of Health, cen­ter, speaks dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion with, at right, Kim Cook, a coun­selor with Cen­trePointe Coun­sel­ing Inc., and at left, Cather­ine Mey­ers, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for the Cen­ter for Chil­dren, dur­ing a town hall meet­ing con­cern­ing child sex­ual abuse at The Church @ St. Charles Tues­day evening.

STAFF PHOTO BY JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU

Above left, Abena McAl­lis­ter, founder of the com­mu­nity group Women of Ac­tion Charles County, gives in­tro­duc­tions dur­ing a town hall meet­ing con­cern­ing child sex­ual abuse at The Church @ St. Charles Tues­day evening. Above right, Fred Cau­dle, se­nior pas­tor at The Church @ St. Charles, leads a prayer dur­ing a com­mu­nity town hall meet­ing dis­cussing child sex­ual as­sault hosted by the church Tues­day night.

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