Child abuse is out of control: who protects the little ones from those who should care for them

Abuse against children has become a scourge completely out of control in Romania and in front of which the authorities helplessly shrug their shoulders. We are talking about a phenomenon that cannot be eradicated unless we fight on several fronts, several experts explained to “Adevărul”, who also made a profile of the sexual aggressor.

In 2021, 3% of parents said their child had been sexually abused. Photo source: archive

The first hearings began after the scandal at the kindergarten in Popești Leordeni, where a caretaker was caught on camera verbally and physically abusing the children. Their parents were interviewed on Monday, and the employees of the institution are also expected to attend the hearings in the following days. All this time, the swimming teacher from the Dinamo Club, accused of sexually assaulting a 7-year-old student, is behind bars. Two mathematics teachers, one from Bucharest and the other from Lehliu Gară, Ialomița, were also placed in custody the other day, who allegedly sexually assaulted their female students who came to the meditations.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg, because such cases of abuse against children happen almost daily in Romania. According to the statistics compiled by the Save the Children Organization, last year almost 13,500 cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of minors were registered. Of these, over a thousand were sexual abuses. And the black numbers don't stop there: World Vision Romania shows that almost one in four students faced comments of a sexual nature at school. At the same time, 17.5% of the children surveyed said that they were touched inappropriately at school. In 12.7% of cases, the touches came from peers, in 1% from teachers, and in 3.8% of cases, teenagers answered that they were touched by other people.

How should we prevent child sexual abuse? The family is the first to take a stand, believes Iulian Cristache, president of the Parents' Federation.

The family must talk to the child from the beginning, the topic of sexual abuse should not be a taboo, as is, unfortunately, sex education. Parents have the duty to explain the dangers to them, to encourage them to tell stories, to say if they have gone through such experiences, not to close in them like a shell. Children should be taught not to have secrets from their parents, not to be afraid to speak.”

Psychologist Mihai Copăceanu also explained what we should do, concretely, as parents. “Parents should, first of all, banish naivety and good faith and adopt multiple safety measures when leaving the child in the care and supervision of other adults, even for a few hours, whoever they may be: caregivers, teachers, etc. If we are referring to the educational, cultural or sports environment, individual “one to one” activities are not safe. You cannot send a 13, 14-year-old child to a meditative teacher at his home, in his apartment, however famous and well-known he may be, you cannot leave a little girl with a sports coach or swimming instructor, unless group activities.”

On the other hand, says psychologist Mihai Copăceanu, parents should be one step ahead of the child and understand his psychology.

“We demand honesty, authenticity and truth from the child, we encourage him verbally to tell us everything he does every day at school and after school. But children, even from a young age, hide things from their parents for a number of reasons. And then I recommend parents not to put this responsibility and burden on their own child, nor to get upset when they find out an unpleasant truth, but to take all preventive safety measures to be sure that their own child is under the care and education of an adult mentally healthy and in an environment of trust.”

Empathy, a criterion for selecting teachers in private schools

Iulian Cristache believes that the school would be the next entity that should get involved in educating children about abuse of any kind. What happens when the school not only doesn't get involved, but actually perpetuates the abuse? The laws of the Romanian state intervene. Many times, however, unnecessary, is the opinion of Iulian Cristache. For example, under the Sex Offender Registry Act, any entity whose activities involve direct contact with children is required to require certificates of behavioral integrity from any employee, volunteer or other person who interacts directly with those children. But, says Iulian Cristache, “not even this document is a definite proof of the integrity of the respective teaching staff. And that's because there are many people undetected by the authorities, cases of abuse that were never reported by the parents or investigated by the police”.

So the question arises: what should a school principal look for when hiring? If the certificate of integrity does not certify… I found out the answer to this question from Prof. Ioana Rădulescu, the deputy director of a private high school in the capital. This explained to us what is expected in a job interview. “We make sure that teachers are not only well-prepared academically, but also able to establish healthy and respectful relationships with students.”

The headmistress told us that, during the interview, the candidate teacher is asked how he manages difficult situations in the classroom. “His degree of empathy and adaptability to the individual needs of students is watched. It aims to assess his ability to create a safe and supportive environment in the classroom, but also to build and maintain positive relationships with students. They are questions compiled by the team of psycho-pedagogical counselors of our Guidance and Counseling Center and which can provide clues about the social and emotional skills of the candidate”, Prof. Ioana Rădulescu also explained. Periodic observations and constant feedback from peers and school management are then analysed. “It tracks how teachers address students, tone of voice, body language and other relevant aspects of their interaction. Based on these, problematic behaviors can be quickly identified and appropriate measures can be taken“, it shows.

In the private sector, teachers also receive professional training after employment. This training also includes specific modules on bullying prevention and different approaches to meet the individual needs of students. Another important way to evaluate how the teacher interacts with students is direct feedback from students and their parents. “The anonymous questionnaires and the regular one-to-one meetings (teacher – student – counselor – principal) provide us with valuable information about the students' experience in the classroom and the quality of their relationships with the teacher.”

Psychological assessment of teachers, irrelevant

How do the authorities get involved in preventing abuse? Far too little, says Iulian Cristache, although we would have laws: “They are those institutions that, once a year, certify teachers in occupational medicine clinics. Unfortunately, many of these psychological assessments are just for the form, just on paper. There are many cases when the teachers are all gathered in the chancellery, they do a brief and ready preparation”.

On the other hand, says Iulian Cristache, the abuse of certain teachers could be stopped by simply introducing audio and video surveillance cameras in the classrooms.

Profile of the sexual aggressor

A sexual aggressor is not a character from horror movies, a rapist with a face that scares you, with a scar on his cheek and whom you meet on the street at night, explained psychologist Mihai Copăceanu. “It's a false image. The sexual aggressor is where you don't even think, in most cases, he is a well-known person, from the close environment and is very well hidden by clean clothes, polite language, a smile, politeness and knows how to be pleasant. He is a skilled manipulator, treacherous, liar and cunning. These are his important weapons. He does not initially use physical force because he knows the victim will reject him. From his position of trust (teacher, coach, priest), he uses professional authority and acts in stages, makes himself pleasant, uses humor, compliments, smiles, often gives small children gifts, approaches victims and manipulates the victim until his reach the goal. There is, of course, a later stage where he will use threat and fear, when he does not want to be reported, and makes the victim feel guilty and responsible for consenting to sexual acts. The pedophile has no empathy, no remorse, no guilt, will not admit his actions. On the contrary. He will claim in front of the accusers that he did no harm, that “the victim accepted” and “that he did not force her in anything”.