Community forum addresses signs, ways to talk about sexual abuse
More than 80 attended event in wake of teacher’s aide assault indictment
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.
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.
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.