‘We need to protect these children’: 25 Investigates shares warning signs of childhood sexual abuse

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by CHJ Fellow Kerry Kavanaugh, Marina Villeneuve

“I was a junior in high school, and he invited me over to his house, and he wanted me to see the Christmas lights on his tree,” Andrea Vaughan said.

Andrea Vaughan told 25 Investigates the invitation came from her junior high school science teacher in Norwood.

“And all of a sudden he put his arms around my waist, and I froze,” she said. “I felt this panic and I didn’t know what to do.”

“And the other thing was: ‘Now you can’t tell anybody about. No one will understand how special this is. I’ll go to jail. And I if that happens, I’ll kill myself. And that’ll be your fault.’”

She said that moment came after two years of grooming – slowly breaking down boundaries.

“He bought presents,” Vaughan said. “He took kids places. And so if there was a question, they would just say: ‘Oh, yeah, but that’s who he is. He’s just a really nice guy.’”

Expression and artistry have helped Vaughan along her lifelong healing process: from sharing her story of surviving years of sexual abuse in the 1980s with us, to detailing her journey in her book ‘Invisible Target: Breaking the Cycle of Educator Sexual Abuse,’ to her music, to her work leading trainings on signs of childhood sexual abuse.

Boston 25 typically does not name victims of sexual abuse.

But Vaughan said she wants to use her voice to help educate the public about the dynamics of child sexual abuse in schools.

At the close of each chapter in her book, she provides a list of questions aimed at students, parents, teachers, administrators and survivors.

“It is such an epidemic, I think people don’t realize,” she said. “And if they can start learning about the signs of grooming and abuse, I think that’s the point where we can step in.”

The U.S. Department of Education has estimated as many as 1 in 10 children in the U.S. will face sexual misconduct or harassment.

That would amount to as many as 97,000 students in Massachusetts alone.

“It dwarfs the problem with the Catholic Church,” Vaughan said.

SIGNS OF ABUSE

Doctor Robert Sege, with the Center for Community Engaged Medicine at Tufts Medical Center, specializes in child abuse pediatrics.

Sege serves on the boards of the Massachusetts Children’s Trust and Prevent Child Abuse America. He’s also served on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.

“The people who sexually abuse children, earn their trust and sometimes may be in a position like you’re talking about – teachers or clergy members or coaches or family members who take the child under the wing and try to make them feel special,” he said.

He said children are often unable to come forward, and if they do there might not be physical signs of abuse.

“Sometimes it’s because the person who is abusing them makes them think it’s normal, or makes it thinks they love them, or it makes them think that they have their parents’ approval, or because they’re in a position of authority, or that they won’t be believed,” he said. “So, a lot of manipulation of children goes on when they’re being sexually abused. So often we don’t find out about it. The parents don’t find out about it for weeks or months afterwards.”

But there are warning signs – which can include sudden changes in behavior, such as bowel or bladder habits.

“They may start bedwetting or other kinds of problems to show that they’re distressed,” Sege said.

A child may no longer want to visit a particular relative, he said.

He advises adults to pay attention to other forms of expression as well.

“Language and drawings, what children draw on should also be important for parents to keep an eye out for,” Sege said.

And, what they’re saying.

“If they start talking about sexual topics in ways that seem really inappropriate or really adult or using words that they have no business using or talking about topics and behaviors, that’s a real red flag,” he said.

Sege said he advises parents to start conversations with children about how their days went – whether anything made them happy, whether something is making them uncomfortable.

He said parents can ensure children know that adults should never touch them in private areas.

Sege also advises parents to tell children that a safe and trustworthy person would never tell them to keep anything from their parents or guardians.

Vaughan said she felt tired, sick and emotional at times – but when others asked how she was feeling, she would pretend to be OK.

“People voiced some questions,” she said. “My behavior, it was all over the place. I had a big facade that I perfected from childhood.”

Still – she said it’s important for adults to listen to their gut if they recognize signs of abuse: “Wonder out loud to somebody else.”

SIGNS OF GROOMING

Sege said it’s hard to get numbers on the extent of abuse – but he said the number of adults who say they were sexually abused as children in CDC surveys typically dwarfs the number of investigated cases of child sexual abuse cases.

“If you’re a ten- or 11-year-old and there’s this teacher who everyone really admires and they take a special interest in you, your first reaction from most of the kids is they feel flattered,” Sege said. “Because this awesome teacher really, really cares about me.”

Vaughan said she felt fragile and particularly vulnerable to abuse as a young teenager: from growing up in a single parent household, to living around abuse in her home, to the desire to feel special.

“He knew that I needed to be seen,” she wrote. “He made me feel so special that I did not question his intentions, and he had my inherent trust.”

Sege said Department of Children and Family statistics suggest young teenagers are particularly at risk, and that predators tend to pick on children perceived as vulnerable.

“And that can be emotionally, or children who are in abusive households, all kinds of things,” he said. “But there are no general rules about that.”

In research for her book, Vaughan said she found several signs of grooming: including extra time alone, gift-giving and gaining trust with parents and colleagues.

She said she was allowed to spend too much time alone with her teacher – from rides home, to having lunch with him, to talking to him after school on the phone, to trips to restaurants, arcades, amusement parks and the beach.

One gift that she treasured: a necklace with a silver chain, on which a tiny stone painted with a dark sky, mountain and moon hung. She would often hide it – but decided to wear it in her senior year picture.

She said abusers also tend to gain acclaim in their local community: from winning awards for teaching, to attending plays and concerts, to being invited by parents to dinner.

“Look for patterns,” she said. “Watch for signs that are blurry and confusing and confusing. Trust your gut. If you sense that something is inappropriate, it probably is.”

Vaughan said her mother once asked the teacher about his conduct – worried he would break her heart, she told him to stop spending so much time with her.

The teacher told Vaughan that he had grown attached to her, but that he would abide by her mother’s wishes.

Vaughan said she stormed out of her house after shouting at her mother: “‘How could you take away my only friend?!’”

Then, she and the teacher began to meet secretly.

“From early on, I got the message that secrets, and shame and unacceptable behaviors were kind of the norm,” she wrote.

PREVENTING ABUSE

Tammy Bernardi, prevention training coordinator at the Children’s Trust, said prevention is possible – if everyone is aware of the signs of grooming and abuse.

“Prevention is an important part of coming in and making sure no harm happens at all,” she said.

The Children’s Trust runs training courses for schools and community groups to help create systems that ensure children are safe.

Their work includes suggestions for codes of conduct, she said: “If you’re working with a group of children and someone has to use the restroom, what are your policies to ensure we don’t have one adult with one child?”

And they also have recommendations for policies for screening employees: “What kind of background screening are you doing? What kinds of questions do you ask to ensure that the people who are working with children are a good fit?”

She said schools must be on the lookout for everyday signs of grooming and abuse.

“People who are looking to harm children are grooming everyone around that child, which is why the policies and procedures, codes of conduct and supervision are so important,” she said.

And most importantly, she said, adults need to know what to do if they do have concerns.

To report child abuse in Massachusetts, individuals can call the DCF Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Toll-Free at (800) 792-5200.

Sege said it’s on school officials to take complaints seriously.

“When you see something as an administrator or people are complaining, to not brush it off, to take it really seriously,” Sege said. “Many of these cases, when they’re disclosed, it turns out that the predator has abused other children in the past who never brought it to the attention of authorities. The signs were there, and some may even have complained to an administrator and that complaint wasn’t taken seriously. So, what we think as pediatricians is if a child discloses sexual abuse, believe them and really take it seriously, look into it and make sure that that’s investigated.”

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering legislation to require sexual abuse prevention training in schools and community groups – and to require strong anti-abuse policies and codes of conduct outlining appropriate behavior.

Sege said from stronger background checks to clear conduct rules and systems that make it difficult for adults to be alone with children, abuse can be prevented.

And he said, parents should have talks about healthy boundaries with all their children, regardless of gender: “Both boys and girls are victims of sexual abuse and parents should be careful about this and give the same advice to their sons as their daughters.”

Vaughan said it’s crucial for adults to be proactive and step in early – before grooming takes hold and abuse begins.

“I never would have betrayed that trust that I had with him,” she said. “The end of high school, the abuse just progressed in ways that we can’t even talk about right here. It was that bad. But the power he had over me diminished any pain that I had. I was so afraid of getting him in trouble. There was this alliance that I couldn’t break, and he had me convinced of that, really brainwashed of that. And so, he also had me convinced that I was culpable, that it was my fault that this was happening. And he had been convinced I would go to jail. And I had no idea that he was wrong.”

HOW ABUSE IMPACTS WELLBEING

Sege said the mental health and psychological consequences of sexual abuse can be long-lasting.

“The parents should help them get treatment if they’re showing symptoms or at least have to see a mental health professional to sort of explore what the consequences for that child are,” Sege said. “Because there are sort of two things that have gone on. One is the sexual abuse itself and the other is the violation of trust.”

“How could they do this?” Sege said children may wonder. “And too often, how could the other adults around not have seen it? And so, I think there’s a lot that children have to process as they go through this.”

Sege said abuse can increase a child’s stress – leaving them withdrawn, untrusting, angry, with difficulty focusing and concentrating in school.

Children may face depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

Vaughan said the abuse left lasting damage on her mental and emotional wellbeing – from depression, to the weight of carrying a “toxic secret.”

“The trauma that I went through with him – It’s so hard to even define because it crossed so many different areas of my life,” she said.

“But the control that that man had and the fear that he had and the squashing of my spirit, that stays with me in such surprising ways,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to tap in,” she said. “How do I really feel about this? I still am looking for someone else before I voice my feelings. I’m very aware of that now, but that took me decades to come into my own.”

“I held that inside me all through high school,” she said. “I was so sick physically because I think your body can’t contain a secret like that, even if your words can, your body can’t. So, I would have stomach aches, migraines, chest pains, massive insomnia.”

She said the trauma made it hard for her to approach relationships as an adult: “When I would get into relationships later, it was really hard for me to trust was okay to feel this way about someone. Am I going to get hurt later? Should I push them away? And then for a while, my drove my self-esteem down into the ground.”

Vaughan said the abuse lasted through high school and her college years – until she finally started seeing a therapist and attended a support group for sexual abuse survivors.

Then, she found the power to leave her abuser.

Sege said research shows that children can heal – with help from supportive adults.

“One of the things we now know is that children’s brains are constantly developing and they’re able to heal,” he said.

Sege said one of the most important things a parent can do is simply listen.

“As parents, most of us want to solve our kids problems,” he said. “And sometimes we can. And often just listening, hearing them out and validating their emotions and making sure that they know two things: One is it was not their fault. And the other is they’re going to get better.”

He said artistic expression, and involvement in extracurriculars and hobbies, can be pivotal.

“If they create a safe environment at school or wherever it was, so the children can recover if they have an opportunity to be engaged, whether they’re a singer or an artist or a sports person, whatever it is they do, to have them be able to grow in ways that are completely separate from their abuse,” he said. “So, the children don’t view themselves as their primary identity I’m an abused person, but their primary identity is, I sing bass in the church choir.”

Vaughan has used music to process her trauma, penning lyrics such as: “Little did I know that you power would infect me and not let me breathe.”

“Cleansing my soul, returning is my innocence,” one song goes.

She told us: “I’ve come a long way, but I still have a ways to go.”

WHO’S AT RISK OF ABUSE?

In the early 2000s, Vaughan contacted her Norwood school and said she had been abused by the teacher.

“The school did nothing initially,” Vaughan said.

Then eight months later, Vaughan said Norwood police contacted her and said the teacher was in custody for statutory rape of two 14-year-old female students.

“When they heard there was a third former student coming forward, that’s when he accepted a plea bargain,” she said.

She developed a strong bond with the two girls: one asked her to be a bridesmaid.

“I’m doing great, very happy,” she said. “And you really can have life after trauma. And we just need to really all work together so that we can spare some kids from having to have so much time before they get to the beauty.”

Vaughan said the teacher was never charged for his years of abuse of her.

She said Norwood police told her that despite the statute of limitations, they may be able to press charges due to threats she said the teacher allegedly made to her: “I could bury you.”

“I never pursued it, and I never will,” she said. “I never wanted to press charges back then because I still was afraid of that man. I still had fear. He still had power over me mentally.”

“I don’t know if they didn’t pursue it, I don’t know if it was because I didn’t pursue it,” she said. “I didn’t’ hear anything more after that day.”

Vaughan said she supports legislation to better prevent and address child sexual abuse in Massachusetts – including bills to raise the age of consent in cases where teachers and other trusted adults sexually abuse students.

“There is a power differential that you cannot ignore,” she said. “It is not equal footing. And even if someone is 18 and technically an adult, it doesn’t matter because they are a student.”

She called 16 an “arbitrary number.”

“It is not okay. We need to protect these children.”

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