An Ounce of Prevention

An Ounce of Prevention
Photo credit: dlwickstrom/lightstock.com

It took just one name, written in shaky pre-teen scrawl, to confirm Diane Cranley's worst fears: It had happened again.

Her daughter sat beside her in the therapist's office, crying. The ten-year-old couldn't even squeak out the name of the man who had been sexually abusing her, so she wrote it instead.

Cranley read the note but wasn't surprised; she had suspected her ex-husband had been abusing her youngest daughter (his step-daughter). Now, after a therapy session explaining what sort of touching between adults and children wasn't acceptable, her daughter was ready to talk.

Several months later, Cranley asked her why she finally told.

"Because I realized you already knew," her daughter replied.

That was true. Cranley certainly knew about childhood sexual abuse—all too well.

A Model Childhood Marred

Cranley, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., now 54, enjoyed "an amazing childhood." But as tight-knit as her family was, she told no one when her modeling teacher molested her during a lesson when she was 12.

"I'm not sure as a child if I ever intellectually acknowledged it was wrong, but it felt wrong immediately," she tells Citizen. "I probably thought about it often, but would shut it out."

Those efforts ultimately failed.  In a 2014 video made by Cranley's congregation, Mountain View Church (MVC) in San Juan Capistrano, she shared how the feelings of guilt and shame stemming from that encounter led her into teenage promiscuity.

"I was now dealing with things way beyond my age," she said. "(The assault) made me sexualized. It was easier for me to believe that was a choice I made, to be engaged in a relationship with a man, than to believe I was victimized."

Despite feeling God's presence in her Catholic church, Cranley stopped attending at 16. She couldn't face Him anymore, she says, and decided to figure out life on her own. That included getting married when she was 23 and moving to Atlanta to attend Oglethorpe University.

Eventually, Cranley and her husband moved back to Southern California, began successful jobs and had a baby girl. When their daughter was 3, however, Cranley and her husband separated. Within a year, she was dating someone else and pregnant.

"I was a single mom of two kids; I had nobody to defer to when emotions were unraveling," she says. "The baby would start crying, my oldest daughter would start crying, and I would just join them because there was nothing else I could do."

So when her ex-husband offered to help out while Cranley went on business trips, she accepted. After all, she needed childcare, and he had never shown signs of being anything but a doting father.

"He spent a good deal of time with my youngest daughter," she says. "He really played the role of a stepfather."

A New Call

Cranley's youngest exposed that stepfather's actions in the therapist's office on Jan. 18, 2007. As the months passed, Cranley—by then a software and consulting sales representative with a major communications firm—dissected everything internally. How had the same evil struck twice?

"I don't know if I can even describe what came over me when my daughter told—sadness, fear, guilt. My whole past came flooding back," she says in her MVC video. "How much I had let her down … I hadn't been able to protect her. I never once thought it could happen in my own home."

But it had, and the knowledge ate at her soul. A friend, seeing her distress, invited Cranley to church.

"I knew God was there, and it was time to go talk to Him," she says. Within a month, she had given her life to Christ and was talking with Him regularly—but had no expectation that He would actually talk back.

Two months later, Cranley woke up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. God wanted to chat—and He had plenty on His mind.

Cranley was to quit her job, she recalls, and "connect millions of people all over the world who had been abused, and to help them heal." She was also supposed to teach parents how to prevent abuse in the first place and support those whose children had been sexually assaulted.

Beyond that, the Lord laid out one last bullet point: Cranley needed to offer support and forgiveness for sex offenders, including her ex-husband.

"They needed to be loved, too. They were His children," she says in the MVC video. "He needed me to understand that they were victims too, that all of this was a scheme of the enemy—to take out our children as early as possible, so they would never be able to partake in the kingdom of God."

The next day, Cranley called her boss and took a three-month leave of absence. In August 2007, she launched Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids (TAALK), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse through education and awareness while supporting victims and parents.

Though Cranley had no nonprofit experience, her sales career provided her with a solid foundation of skills for her new venture—networking, creating presentations, and using social media to spread the message.

That message, it turns out, is how widespread sexual abuse is.

"In addition to reading hundreds of books, research papers, and news articles, I have formally interviewed hundreds of experts, representing 16 countries and every facet of this pandemic," Cranley writes on TAALK's website. "I have also had the opportunity to personally support over 200 survivors and parents of survivors through weekly support groups, and I have spoken informally to thousands more."

The Signs

During those interviews, Cranley noticed several common threads among molesters: The isolation of children. The steady gain of trust in a community. A deep interest in childlike hobbies or current events, including a lack of adult friends. Having children keep secrets as a "grooming" technique—first as a test of the child's silence, then of the actual abuse.

Her modeling coach, for example, taught in a windowless room in his home where parents weren't allowed. He surrounded himself with girls who craved attention. He treated all of them as if they were older than they really were.

Her ex-husband, meanwhile, was incredibly up-to-date on trends among kids; he fashioned himself into a "fun dad," often encouraging rule-breaking; he rarely hung out with men his own age, instead preferring single moms.

"My ex-husband created scenarios that drew in a lot of neighborhood kids, and he regularly created private time with them, including special outings," Cranley recalls.  "He was much more like a peer to the kids than an adult."

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 40 to 80 percent of child molesters are victims of sexual crime themselves.

That data convinced Cranley the sexual abuse of minors is predictable—even preventable—when families, schools, churches and youth-serving organizations (YSOs) surround children with knowledgeable and outspoken adults.

So Cranley poured 60 hours each week into her new mission, creating an online training module detailing the best ways to prevent abuse. She conducted on-site classes for local churches, schools and YSO workers. She expanded TAALK's social media following to more than 30,000 people. She built its website to help users assess their current abuse awareness levels, heal from past abuse, learn the issue's scope and find like-minded resources. She launched a weekly advocacy group called Christians Rising.

Finally, Cranley wrote 8 Ways to Create Their Fate: Protecting the Sexual Innocence of Children in Youth-Serving Organizations (Tate Publishing), released in April 2015 in conjunction with Child Abuse Awareness & Sexual Assault Prevention Month. To augment her instructional debut, she kick-started a prevention campaign called "Protect Their Innocence" with a goal of getting a copy of 8 Ways in every YSO nationwide.

Cranley says 8 Ways, backed by scientific research on the psychology of abuse, is the first book of its kind; previously, only scholarly research papers addressed this topic.

We don't want to make choices from a place of fear and limit opportunities for our children, but there is always a way to create healthy relationships that exist within the framework of good boundaries," she tells Citizen. "If you ask a youth-serving organization leader to tell you about their child sexual abuse prevention policy, you are likely to get no more than a few sentences, if that. So as a society, we have not yet begun to institute the hundreds of ways we can better protect children, based on what research and our experience has shown us."

One proven method: Talking to your kids. A website user told Judith Neufeld-Fernandez, a trained TAALK volunteer, how she opened a conversation with her 10-year-old twins. Soon, one shared how a school custodian played "cookie games" with students. He coerced the kids into feeding him cookies, leaning closer each time, while telling the twin the game was the only thing that kept him coming to work. He also gave her a stuffed animal, saying they were "going steady."

After the mom informed the school, the custodian was moved to another location.

"The police investigator told the mom that she 'dodged a bullet,' and he never sees cases where the parents were able to intervene before abuse happens," Neufeld-Fernandez tells Citizen.

Beyond Statistics

Studies show sexual abuse is found in every economic and social class. According to Darkness to Light, a South Carolina-based abuse prevention organization, more than 400,000 children are sexually abused in the United States each year.

The trauma tends to stick for life; according to Darkness to Light, sexually abused children are three more times likely to develop addictions and twice as likely to quit school than other kids. Ninety percent of perpetrators are trusted family members or friends. Only 31 percent of victims report the abuse within a year; only 29 percent of reported incidents lead to police action.

Julie Messina of Orange County, Calif., didn't want her six-year-old son to become a faceless statistic. So when she attended a free TAALK training session at MVC, she put the principles into practice immediately.

The vast majority of childhood sexual abuse takes place in one-on-one situations. So Messina asked her son's YMCA director and school principal how they prevent those situations from occurring.

"I ask all of (my son's) providers, 'Are you aware of the prevalence of child sexual abuse, and what do you do to keep the children in your care safe?'" she tells Citizen. "It makes them aware that I am knowledgeable and watching them."

Additionally, she incorporated TAALK's "stoplight method" into her everyday conversations. "Where does this person fit on your stoplight?" she asks her son. If an adult or another child is doing something that makes him uncomfortable—even if he can't verbalize why—he answers "red." A yellow light stands for caution, while a green light means the child has no concerns. This tool gives Messina valuable insight, especially if her son lacks the vocabulary to say, "This person is grooming me."

"Through my training, I am very aware of the emotional consequences of sexual abuse and am on the lookout for physical and emotional signs of abuse, such as changes in school performance, depression, withdrawal or behavior problems," she says. "I am empowered to prevent abuse by participating in TAALK training and reading the book."

Community-Minded

Beyond prevention, TAALK also provides support for survivors and their families, hosts booths at conferences, runs prayer groups and develops marketing materials. The website has Spanish capabilities, while some of TAALK's prevention programs have been translated into Mandarin. Over 100,000 people have visited taalk.org, with 1.4 million hits since 2007.

Since the beginning, success stories have been rolling in. One TAALK support group member's family, for example, had ignored incest perpetrated by several family members through different generations. Once one person began attending the group—and healing from the abuse—others came. They, eventually held the abusers accountable and created healthy boundaries for their own children.

Dallas Stout, a Cal State Fullerton professor who invites Cranley to speak in his classes, says his students are changed by spending 90 minutes with her.

"(So many) have started talking about their own abuse as a platform to shine a light on this dark topic," he tells Citizen. "(Many) have adopted the best practices either in their own homes or professional work, thus preventing further abuse in their communities."

To date, TAALK, which is funded through a corporate sponsor and private donations, has trained more than 7,000 adults across Southern California in its prevention program. Graduates include parents, faith leaders, therapists, doctors, pediatricians, teachers, coaches, attorneys, police, college students, teens and survivors of all ages.

Spiritual Protection

While many child sex abuse prevention organizations exist, TAALK is one of the few that combines secular research and proven best practices with a spiritual component. So a dance studio, for example, would use TAALK's secular curriculum, whereas a youth group would use the same approach while adding prayer, divine healing and spiritual support.

Cranley feels non-faith-based approaches to sexual abuse prevention don't go far enough.

"The enemy has the ability to steal our children's innocence and replace it with a distorted identity of worthlessness," she says. "However, Jesus came to destroy the enemy's work, and when we understand the true power of Christ's death and resurrection, we can claim it and receive full restoration."

To that end, TAALK has produced a guide (taalkwithgod.org) showing parents, educators and other child-focused adults how to wield prayer as a weapon of prevention and healing. Mary Walker*, a San Francisco Bay Area mother of two, drew on TAALK's "prayer walk" principles during legal proceedings with her children's reported sexual abuser.

"(My) prayers started with 'Please help; I don't know what I'm doing; I feel so lost in the system,' " she tells Citizen. "Then it evolved to praying for forgiveness for each person, and ended where I was giving my forgiveness."

It's a fine line to walk for churches. After all, Jesus commands his followers to forgive. But does that mean letting sex offenders attend church alongside children? What about someone who is hesitant to report a fellow churchgoer for fear it will damage God's or their church's reputations? What does it look like to offer healing for victims and accountability for abusers?

Cranley believes both are possible. "God has given me a heart for offenders. Part of me is like, 'I don't want that. I want to take this hard stance,' " she says. "But I believe we have a big God, and there's definitely potential for Jesus to remove those addictions."

Still, that doesn't mean turning a blind eye—quite the opposite, according to Cranley. It doesn't mean handling it internally, either, or using passages like Matthew 18 to bypass the authorities.

"Child sexual abuse is a crime and needs to be treated as such," she says. "We are obligated to let the police determine the course of the investigation. Not only is it the right thing to do morally, clergy and youth leaders are mandated reporters and are obligated by law to report suspected abuse."

Even if not directly part of an investigation, every Christian is called to engage "in the spiritual battle" by praying over this pandemic, she says.

Cranley's daughter, who is now 19, recently helped her mom talk to a suicidal woman. Afterward, Cranley wept, saying, "Now you are experiencing why I do what I do."

"Mom, I've always known why you do what you do," her daughter said. "What I don't know is how you do what you do."

Cranley—once a victim, now an advocate and protector—can't fully explain it, either. So she simply points to the ultimate Defender of the weak, and the Healer of all.

               

*Name has been changed for privacy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: To learn more about TAALK, visit taalk.org.

© 2015 Focus on the Family. Originally published in the August, 2015 issue of Citizen magazine.

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