Sask. teen sexually abused as child says school system didn't equip her to escape
Survivor calling for changes to Saskatchewan's curriculum
The 17-year-old says it was a TV show — not anything she learned in school — that made her realize the things she'd suffered for years in her home were sexual abuse.
In fact, the Saskatchewan teen said she was taught "nothing" in her early elementary school years that would have helped her realize her abuser — her father — was manipulating her to remain quiet.
She had kept it a secret for years, even as it persisted. That's why she says specific education around sexual abuse needs to start as early as kindergarten.
"I grew up feeling like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so weird and so disgusting and [I'm] the only person that this has ever happened to,' " said the 17-year-old, who CBC is not naming because she is a victim of abuse.
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She said she wants to see lessons in schools that are age-appropriate, but not so sugar-coated that kids don't understand the realities of abuse.
"How do you stop bullying? You tell people to stand up to it and talk about it," she said.
"Why can't we do that about other forms of abuse as well?"
The Ministry of Education declined to be interviewed on the subject, but a spokesperson said in an email that "required curricular outcomes include grade-appropriate content related to the prevention of sexual abuse."
It's up to teachers to determine how curriculum outcomes are met.
It was an episode of the TV show Criminal Minds that led the 17-year-old to the realization that she was being sexually abused. She was 12.
She remembers the abuse starting before she was in kindergarten, at least as early as five years old. It continued for years. She said her father was manipulative, saying things like "Everyone does it. It's completely normal, but no one talks about it, ever. Don't tell anyone."
"They can brainwash you," she said of abusers. She said she would have reported the abuse if she had known it wasn't right.
"I was in an abusive home and that was normal. I didn't know anything else."
Her frustration bubbled when she spotted a poster in her school that listed warning signs of abuse. She checked all the boxes, she said. For example, she would recoil if a teacher touched her.
"They'd go to get my attention and tap my shoulder and I would jump."
The poster advised staff to report students who exhibit the signs — but that's not nearly enough, the 17-year-old says.
"If that's the prevention program they have in place — then it's not working."
She began to look into online resources that dealt with child sexual abuse and how to heal from trauma, but it would still be a few years before she told anyone what had happened.
Early years outcomes don't include sexual abuse
Chris Hodges, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said in an email that the kindergarten curriculum includes content related to sexual abuse.
"Students develop basic habits to establish healthy relationships with self, others and the environment and behaviours that supports safety," he said.
However, the curriculum outcomes — the specific criteria that guide teachers — don't address abuse directly.
Abuse isn't specifically mentioned until Grade 3, when one outcome is that kids must be able to distinguish between examples of real violence and fictional violence.
One of the indicators for this outcome is listed as, "describe types of violence and abuse including physical (e.g., punching, kicking), sexual (e.g., inappropriate touching), and emotional (e.g., name-calling, exclusion, cyber-bullying)."
It becomes a bit more direct in Grade 5, when one outcome says students must, "analyze the impact of violence and the cycle of abuse on the holistic well-being of self, family, and community." It's not until Grade 8 that the curriculum says "students must demonstrate an understanding of the impact of violence, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse."
The health curriculum hasn't been reviewed for nearly a decade and there are no reviews currently underway. The health education curricula for Grades 6 to 9 were renewed in 2009 and in 2010 for kindergarten to Grade 5.
Hodges highlighted changes made in recent years.
For example, "the Ministry of Education has identified opportunities in each grade to address child abuse prevention education within curricular outcomes, including the 2019 publishing of the document Curriculum Connections: Opportunities to Address Child Abuse Prevention Education and Response," Hodges said.
The newly released document outlines opportunities for teachers to address child abuse prevention education from Grades 1 through 12.
During the current school year, the Ministry of Education contracted the Canadian Red Cross Society to deliver training workshops and distribute kits for a program called Be Safe to staff in schools and working for school division.
The program, for children aged five to nine, focuses on preventing child sexual abuse.
Ministry encourages school divisions to act
The ministry released a policy statement on child abuse prevention in May 2018.
It says "school divisions are encouraged to create a policy/administrative procedure to mandate the teaching of child abuse prevention education for all students in pre-kindergarten through Grade 12."
Hodges wrote that "students or guardians should communicate any concerns they have regarding the curriculum directly with the teacher," noting additional conversation could be directed to the school principal or school division administration. Saskatchewan's 27 school divisions differ in their response to this policy statement.
For example, a spokesperson for the Regina Public School Division said in an email that the division will review its procedures in the fall of 2019, "and may have a number of new ones to consider, such as the one you reference that is 'encouraged' by the ministry.
"As of today … we do not have the procedure you reference."
A spokesperson for Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools said the division does not currently have a policy about teaching child abuse prevention to students.
"We are in the process of developing one to complement our existing policy on reporting of suspected abuse," the spokesperson said.
'Nobody talks about it'
Sexual abuse is widespread.
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services says 18,250 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect were reported in 2018. Of those, close to 7,000 were screened for investigation.
The fact that nobody talks about it and you don't hear about it is super scary because no one's ever going to learn.- Saskatchewan teen
Statistics Canada data from 2017 shows there were 2,953 police-reported sexual violations against children under 12 and 3,682 sexual violations against children aged 12 to 15.
A 2015 Statistics Canada report said 32 per cent of a nationally representative adult sample indicated that they had experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or exposure to intimate partner violence during childhood.
Statistics Canada notes sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes for many reasons, including shame, guilt and stigma of sexual victimization or the normalization of inappropriate or unwanted sexual behaviour.
The 17-year-old abuse victim who spoke to CBC News said it's still almost impossible for her to talk about her abuse, but with time she's opening up.
She first revealed the abuse through an essay this year. Her English teacher told her she believed in her — and thought she could make a change with her story.
She's been talking more since then. She hasn't reported what happened to the police, although she said she knows that's an option.
"I've had other people like tell me similar stories so then I'm helping them in that way, and it's just a really good feeling because now I'm not trapped inside myself."
She said she was surprised by how many people seem to be affected by child abuse.
"The fact that nobody talks about it and you don't hear about it is super scary because no one's ever going to learn."
Saskatchewan law says if someone believes a child may be neglected or abused, you have a legal responsibility to immediately report your concerns.
It says people must report all incidents of suspected, observed, or disclosed abuse to the nearest Ministry of Social Services Office, First Nations Child and Family Services Agency or local police/RCMP.