A stranger lurks on the edge of a playground, waiting for a parent to turn their back. As soon as the child is unattended, the stranger comes out of the shadows and lures the child away.
It’s a scenario many people call to mind when the subject turns to child sexual abuse. But for the vast majority of children, it isn’t what happens at all.
“Most children who are sexually abused know and trust their abuser,” says Howard Friedrichs, a 2016-17 Our Kids board member and supporter since 2005.
“When I learned that, I was completely shocked. Child sexual abuse is a difficult topic, and the people committing the crime thrive on secrecy and shame. But the more you know about it, the more you understand why we have to talk about it.”
In honor of Our Kids 30th anniversary, Friedrichs talked to Our Kids about what he’s learned in his 12 years as a supporter.
Our Kids: How did you become connected to Our Kids?
Howard Friedrichs: I work at Ford Credit, a company that has supported Our Kids in so many ways for more than 25 years. My manager, Mike O’Connor, asked me to volunteer for Soup Sunday back in 2005. He was such a huge supporter of Our Kids, and I immediately got swept up in the excitement.
I admit, like a lot of people who come to Our Kids events, I didn’t really know what they did at the time. But the passion I saw from the staff and supporters grabbed me. It was inspiring and different from anywhere else I’d volunteered.
OK: What was unique about it?
Friedrichs: Most people don’t want to talk about child sexual abuse, even when there’s not an issue. So to get people to talk about it, and then to get them to do something about it, you have to be a certain type of person.
OK: It’s a tough issue, so it takes a certain kind of strength to tackle it?
Friedrichs: Absolutely. It’s a difficult hurdle, especially when you learn the facts: one in four girls and one in seven boys will experience some sort of child sexual abuse by age 18.
I don’t think everyone realizes how big that number really is, and for a lot of people it seems unreal or overwhelming. But the first thing you learn at Our Kids is it’s real, and we can do something about it.
OK: What’s an easy thing anyone can do to make a difference?
Friedrichs: Arm yourself with knowledge. One thing that really clicked with me was learning the four steps you should use when reacting to a child who discloses abuse to you:
- Listen to the child.
- Support them.
- Stay calm.
- Take action.
I always think about how #3 would be the hardest — staying cool — but that’s another reason everyone should have a roadmap. If a child is brave enough to speak up, you have to be brave enough to stand up for them.
Plus in Tennessee, taking action (#4) is not just the right thing to do: it is required by law. Anyone who has a reasonable suspicion of abuse has to report it.
To report abuse call 1-877-237-0004.
OK: What surprises you most about Our Kids after all these years?
Friedrichs: The staff. What they do on a daily basis — listening to and guiding families through this unthinkable thing — is amazing.
They’re kind and caring. It’s nothing short of outstanding.
OK: People often say, ‘I could never do what you do’ as it relates to working with child sexual abuse.
How do you respond to that?
Friedrichs: We don’t always give ourselves enough credit for how strong we are, and how resilient children are.
It’s impossible to be associated with Our Kids and not have it change you. It opens your eyes to the world, and it gives you a way to help people at their most vulnerable.
As a board member, my role is to help ensure resources are available to help families 24/7/365 at no cost, and to let families know how Our Kids can help if they are ever concerned about child sexual abuse.
Everyone can help with those goals.