BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A turtle puppet, a fish Beanie Baby, an American Girl doll, and a toy kitten all sound like children's play things, but these are actually the tools counselors from Children's Hospital use to teach a very important lesson about sexual abuse in Alabama public school classrooms.
One in 10 children will experience some kind of abuse before the age 18. Many times, they won't tell anyone about it. More often than not, the abuser is someone they know, often a family member.
That's why Children's Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) talked to over 5,000 students from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade in the past year to help them feel empowered to prevent and confront abuse.
"Just like kids are taught what to do if there is a fire, they are taught what to do if there is bad weather, they are taught what to do for bus safety, they are taught what to do if there is an intruder in the schools. Chances are more likely that a child would be exposed to some sort of sexual abuse rather than any other emergency situations," said Debra Schneider, Director of the CHIPS Center.
Schneider is passionate about her work. Using the turtle, she animatedly explains to the youngest students how a victim of abuse will retreat and feel confused, mad and scared. Then she lays out the four step "I Can Plan":
- Try to say no.
- Try to get away.
- Tell someone.
- It’s not your fault.
"It's not sex education, it's not to scare them, it's to empower them," said Schneider.
The program is new, just implemented in Alabama schools last year, because of Erin's Law. It is named for a young woman who was abused by two different family members, but didn't know how to tell anyone. Schneider says that's why this program is so important.
"Erin felt like she was taught stranger danger, but was never taught if it was someone that you know," said Schneider.
Erin's Law requires that students receive four lessons over their school career. For the older students, Schneider and her team tackle the tough topics of statutory rape and human trafficking.
Often the lessons end with a student feeling safe to come forward about abuse. Sometimes, it's even an adult.
"Typically when we go out and talk to schools, a child may disclose, we have staff, people may tell us that something happened to them when they were children," says Schneider. "It's very much a silent epidemic. So Erin's Law is trying to give children a voice."