Child sexual abuse ‘under-reported’

Official statistics of the number of children in the Cayman Islands who are victims of sexual abuse merely scratch the surface, according to a Red Cross campaign highlighting the issue. 

At Clifton Hunter High School alone, 27 students reported that they were sexually abused last year, school counselor Sue Tressider revealed in a documentary produced for the campaign. 

The official figures for the past five years show just under 100 reported cases of sexual abuse against children among a total of 250 cases of child abuse. The Red Cross warns, however, that the statistics represent just a fraction of actual cases, with many youngsters afraid to come forward. 

Speaking in the documentary, which premiered Thursday as part of the Red Cross “Protection Starts Here” campaign, Ms. Tressider said child sexual abuse was a major concern in Cayman. 

“It’s most definitely a problem in the Cayman Islands, and I think the numbers that we collect as Department of Education Services are testament to that,” said Ms. Tresidder.  

“My school last year, for example, at Clifton Hunter, we had 27 cases,” she said, adding that other government schools may have similar numbers. 

Local statistics from the Department of Children and Family Services reveal that from 2009 to 2014, there were 251 cases of child abuse in six categories, with sexual abuse the most frequent – 98 cases. Experts featured in the video said abuse cases are grossly under-reported. 

“This is one of the most unreported issues to affect our community,” said counselor Cindy Blekaitis in the documentary. 

The DVD premiered to an audience of a few dozen people, followed by an open panel discussion during which the audience had a chance to raise concerns to local experts. 

Deputy director of the Red Cross, Carolina Ferreira, told the Cayman Compass following the launch that the organization wanted the local community to start talking about the issue.  

She said the response to the documentary, which is only one part of the DVD tool, had been “overwhelmingly positive,” based on the feedback received during the panel discussion and calls received the following morning. 

The DVD tool, created over the course of 18 months, aims to provide a reference guide for organizations dealing with children. 

Family Resource Centre’s program coordinator Miriam Foster said often children are too frightened to report abuse because they fear their lives will turn chaotic afterwards. 

“The unfortunate situation is it was usually a family member so [children] felt too ashamed to tell anyone because of fear of what they would bring to the family, or when they did tell someone, that person decided not to believe them,” said Ms. Foster in the documentary.  

Child psychologist Sophia Chandler said children often stay silent because the perpetrator is usually a family friend. “It helps maintain that cultural silence which is a huge, huge problem, not only for the victim but for the country as a whole,” she said. 

Ms. Tresidder raised another concern relating to perpetual cycle of silence. “We have a grand concern that in more and more cases, the mother is a foreign national and wants to get her seven years in so that she can become Caymanian so there’s a tendency not to believe their daughter for that reason,” she said. 

Ms. Ferreira pointed out that as a country, Cayman has a tendency to try to differentiate itself from things happening in the wider Caribbean, “and that’s not always the case. There is a trend, for instance, where there are fathers who believe it is their right to be the ones to initiate their daughters into sex,” she said in the documentary. 

Ms. Blekaitis said Cayman Brac and Little Cayman were not exempt and she had dealt with child abuse cases there. “What you find in small communities like the Brac is that there is such limitation as far as resources that are available, as well as it’s more difficult to separate yourself from the situation… so it makes it way more difficult for a child or parent to break that silence,” she said. 

Ms. Foster also acknowledged the lack of resources on the Sister Islands. “The sad reality is that sometimes, because we are so understaffed, we have the same counselor working with a perpetrator of abuse and then the victim may be waiting out in the waiting room without realizing it,” she said. 

Ms. Ferreira said a comprehensive sexual education and safety program was needed in schools to raise national awareness levels. 

Clive Baker, senior policy advisor at the Ministry of Education, told the Compass that a comprehensive sex education program is in place in public secondary schools as part of the national curriculum, which includes a requirement to teach sex and relationship education.  

“Parents can choose to withdraw their children from sex and relationship classes. Primary sex and relationship education is a culturally more difficult area to address, and there are wide differences of opinion regarding what should or should not be taught to younger children,” he said. 

The DVD tool is free of cost but is only be available at the Red Cross as part of a child abuse training program called the “Darkness to Light.”  

For more information, email [email protected] 

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Panelists Carolina Ferreira, Paulinda Williams, Cindy Blekaitis, Sophia Chandler and Nancy Davey hold an open discussion on child sexual abuse. – Photo: SAMANTHA BONHAM
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