Similar to having a safety plan in case of fire, safety planning for families can address their child's risk for abuse or assault. A first step is talking to children about safety during everyday life.
A safety plan for a young child would include having an adult protector who helps keep them out of abusive or violent situations, notices unusual behaviors in the child that might be linked to distress or trauma, and then asks questions about what might be happening.
The following tips were adapted from SAFE, Stop it Now! and Chicago Children's Advocacy Center.
Identify who to ask for help. Children should know which people in their everyday lives are safe and could help if they were in trouble or in danger. They should also know who to generally trust in the community. Children with disabilities generally spend time at home, on the bus, in disability service agencies, and in schools or daycares. For each setting, identify or help children identify several people they could ask for help. The people on this list will change over time.
Teach children what’s okay and not okay. Because most children are abused by people they know, teaching needs to go beyond the concept of stranger danger. Teach children that there are things that are not okay for adults, other children, or siblings to do to them, or for them to do to other people. Some touches are okay, like a goodnight kiss from Mom or Dad, high fives with friends, or medical checkups. Some are not, like hitting, pulling hair, or touching another person’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts without permission.
Parents and others can help children learn that they have some control over what happens to their bodies by asking permission or telling them what is going to happen before touching: Is it okay if I hug you? I’m going to change your diaper now.
They can also be role models by using positive discipline and alternatives to spanking or shaming.
Practice safety in different settings and with different people. One parent was aware of the risks, knew the importance of talking with her daughter about safety, and did so on many occasions. However, after her daughter was sexually assaulted, this parent realized she had not thought about practicing safety skills through role plays or in real life settings where her daughter spends time.
After learning about the assault, this mother talked to her daughter and arranged for someone trusted to role play with her daughter in different settings. She practiced saying no firmly and loudly, walking quickly away, and telling someone when she felt unsafe.
Ask some of the safe people in your child’s life to be available so the child can practice asking for help in different settings. This practice may make it easier for children to seek help when there is a real need.
Reinforce that it is okay to ask for help and that most people need help at times when you notice children struggling with a task or problem. These statements can remind children to also seek help about abuse.
Pay attention. Listen to what children tell you, especially if they are uncomfortable. Watch for signs of changes in behavior and emotions, or withdrawal.
If a child shares or indicates by their behavior that they are uncomfortable with a caregiver or another person in their life, take note. Monitor the situation and ask questions. If the child continues to be uncomfortable or you continue to have concerns, trust your instincts and change caregivers.
Don’t be lulled into thinking that children are perfectly safe in segregated settings like educational programs or group homes for children and youth with disabilities. Abuse can happen anywhere. The more isolated the child is and the fewer people who are watching, the more opportunities for abuse to occur.
Work with personal care providers.
Enlist care provider assistance. Share information with educators and caregivers about the prevalence and signs of sexual and physical abuse in the lives of children with disabilities. Let them know what information about sexuality you are sharing with your child, what safety steps you are taking, and how they can help.
Monitor care providers. When hiring personal care providers, be clear about your expectations, check references, do background checks, and provide ongoing supervision and feedback. Spend time with your child and care providers, and if there is anything in the interaction that makes you uneasy or uncomfortable, pay attention. If the child lives in a group home or institution, get to know the direct care staff and administration. Visit often. Again, trust your instincts about the child’s safety and address your concerns.
Protect children’s privacy and boundaries. If children needs personal assistance with using the toilet or changing at school or daycare, check to see if the changing or bathroom area provides privacy for students. Make sure you and the child are comfortable with staff responsible for your child’s hygiene. Talk to caregivers in the company of the child about privacy and what boundaries are important for safety.
Give children tools.
Safety tips. Discuss ways to respond to hurtful or dangerous situations, including:
- Leaving the situation or person if possible
- Ignoring the person unless it is dangerous
- Asking for help
- Staying with other safe people in unknown situations
- Telling the person to stop
- Getting help from someone they trust
Communicating abuse. Work with children on how to let you know if something is happening that is not okay. Children who require help using the bathroom, bathing and dressing, and who do not communicate using spoken language or assistive devices, can use a code to alert safe adults. A single word, motion, or gesture can mean that something happened that didn’t feel safe or okay.
If children use a communication device or communication board, make sure it includes words or symbols for communicating about personal safety. Common words and symbols include male and female genitalia, breasts, and buttocks; and words or symbols for hitting, punching, pushing, spanking, or touching. Other possibilities include a switch with a pre-recorded message, whistle, or other personal alarm device for signaling emergencies.
Provide opportunities for choices. Talk to children about their rights. Explain that parents and other adults make many choices for children, but that children get to make choices also. Then provide opportunities every day for children to make choices and decisions. Be willing to negotiate sometimes when you have a disagreement, which will allow them to practice setting boundaries. Keep in mind that compliant children are easy targets for abuse.
Educate yourself and the child about sexuality.
Learn about sexual development in children so you know what to expect. Children with disabilities may develop in some areas of sexuality according to their developmental age, and in some areas according to their cognitive or emotional development.
Work with the child's school to provide abuse prevention, sexuality education, and personal safety skills to reinforce the concepts taught at home.
Teach children information about sexuality and safety that is appropriate to their age and developmental stage.
Learn about Internet use. If children use the Internet, have ongoing conversations about what information is safe to share, what is not, and why. Learn more about cyber safety and share what you learned. Some parents monitor their child’s Internet and cell phone use, and some do not. However, if you do monitor, it’s generally recommended that you let your child know that you’re doing it, and why.
Get support. If the child has been abused, consider seeking or recommending counseling for them and/or for the family through:
- a local, trauma-informed therapist
- a local domestic violence agency
- a local rape crisis agency
- a Children’s Advocacy Center
Report abuse and suspicion of abuse. Call 9-1-1 if there is current danger. Report any suspicion of abuse, neglect, or exploitation to the statewide child abuse intake line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-252-5400.
Take advantage of opportunities to teach the child, based on where they are developmentally. Build upon safety information as the child grows and develops—starting with physical safety; then personal safety and boundaries; and moving onto dating, sexual relationships, and managing personal care attendants, as appropriate.