10 March 2021 (updated)

Preventing Sexual Abuse in Children With Special Needs

Child sexual abuse is one of the most difficult things to process as a parent. And children with special needs are especially vulnerable.

Lindsey Strickland is a Seattle-based parent, advocate, and founder of Worth the Conversation, an online platform and organization committed to providing resources and education to protect children with Down syndrome and other special needs from sexual abuse.

An Advocate's Story

My husband, Daniel, and I have been married almost 15 years and have four children ages 7-11.  Prior to having kids, I worked for a community initiative that aimed to improve health outcomes and care for underserved children and families. I then moved on to lead the children’s advocacy program at a sexual assault crisis center.

In addition to working directly with and helping survivors of child sexual abuse, I provided prevention education for schools, churches, and nonprofits. It was deeply meaningful, hope-filled work. I still think about the brave children, adolescents and parents I met during that time.

Fast forward to when our youngest was a toddler. We discovered he had a neurological diagnosis. This then catapulted us into the world of complicated health care, medical tests, specialists and interventions.  Having a child who had to work so hard and persevere to reach typical developmental milestones helped us clarify that we’d happily trade in culture’s definition of success for the courage, resilience, and compassion we’d discovered in parenting a child with special needs.

This shift in mindset ultimately led us to our fourth child - a little boy with Down syndrome. We adopted Ben from China in January 2016. He came to us as a spunky, willful three-year-old who turned out to have some very complicated medical needs in addition to Down syndrome. Over the course of the next three years, Ben’s contagious enthusiasm for life kept our family going as we navigated health problems, major surgeries, and long hospital stays.

Why Preventing Sexual Abuse in Children With Special Needs Is "Worth the Conversation"

With a background in sexual assault intervention and advocacy, keeping my children safe and teaching them the skills to protect their physical bodies has always been at the forefront of my mind.

Statistics show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience being sexually victimized, in some form, before the age of 18. And individuals with intellectual disabilities are even more vulnerable with at least three times greater risk of abuse.

I started talking to friends in the Down syndrome community. Did they know of any prevention programs that addressed the unique risk factors of our children? I discovered that parents worry about their child’s increased vulnerability to sexual abuse. However, they don't know where to find information, especially for young children with developmental disabilities and developmental delays.

After months of research, I began Worth the Conversation in order to equip parents and caregivers with practical information and skills to empower them to advocate and protect their child with special needs from sexual abuse.

Breaking the Silence About Sexual Abuse of Children With Special Needs

Despite the increased awareness in our culture, sexual abuse remains a very difficult topic to discuss. We want to believe it only happens to other people or in other places. But abuse knows no boundaries and is present in every demographic and socioeconomic class.

Understanding the facts about child sexual abuse and who sexually abuses them is key to preventing it. For example, over 90% of abusers are someone the child and family know and trust. Family members are more often the abuser than an imagined creepy stranger lurking in the woods.

Equipping Parents, and Teachers to Prevent Sexual Abuse

Parents and other caregiving adults need to be equipped with the knowledge of who abuses and the tactics abusers use. Then they will be much more likely to recognize and stop abuse with their children and students before it starts. There are simple things you can do to get started. Providing your child with accurate information about their body parts is so important. Asking school, special education teachers, childcare and extracurricular activities about policies can go a long way in keeping children safe

Resources for Preventing Sexual Abuse in Children With Special Needs

Continue the Conversation and Change the Outcomes

I’m incredibly grateful for the supportive response I’ve received in the Down syndrome community. I am excited for more opportunities to share @Worth the Conversation in the coming year at local and national events. If we commit to opening up the conversation and learning together we can tackle this issue and change the statistics for our children!

Follow Lindsey's work @worththeconversation on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing resources, risk factors, and strategies to prevent child sexual abuse.  

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