April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

Blue pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention Month
Courtesy of Volunteers of America Illinois

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you happen to see blue pinwheels in a park or on the lawn of a courthouse this month, they represent every child who has been a victim of child abuse within the last year. It’s a staggering sight and is a reminder of a very sobering statistic.

As a social worker I’ve dedicated the last few years of my career working toward the prevention of pediatric abusive head trauma and volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) with foster children in Northern Utah.

In my line of work, approximately 25% of abusive head trauma victims die. Most of them are under the age of two years old. I’m inundated every day with information about babies who are abused, with a quarter of them succumbing to the injuries of that abuse. It’s work that hurts my heart and my soul, but meeting survivors, especially adult survivors, and their caregivers, gives me the strength and inspiration to continue on in this much needed, if not soul crushing, work.

If you’re wondering what does this have to do with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, let me educate you a little. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 found that 60% of Utahns identify as members of the Church. That would be a majority of this state, but probably the lowest majority since 1847. I know there are many more citizens who no longer identify as members, but were still raised as members or whose family are still members. I would say, having lived in Utah my entire life, that most people either are members, have been members, or have been heavily influenced by the church.

But did you know that 1 in 5 Utah kids will be sexually abused before the age of 18? According to the organization, Prevent Child Abuse Utah, that’s four times the rate of the national average. That would mean, according to the Gallup poll, a majority of those children are members of the church. In every CASA case I have worked on, the families involved all identified as LDS in some way. In Utah, both girls and boys are sexually abused almost equally. Statistics indicate that 54% of reported child sexual abuse victims are girls and 46% are boys. Because of that Utah taxpayers pay approximately $1 billion annually on child abuse. This equates to just over $2.7 million per day for Utah tax payers.

However, most children do not report sexual abuse. In fact, 88% of adults who were sexually abused as children stated they never reported the abuse. It is estimated that only 1 in 10 victims will report abuse. What most people don’t realize, is that 90% of the time a child will be abused by someone in their circle of trust, not a stranger. It’s not the boogey man in the bushes – it’s that trusted person in your life who you thought would never abuse a child.

In the last year we’ve been hearing more and more about men in positions of authority in the Church who have abused either children or people they had stewardship over – people in their circle of trust. Just last week Sterling Van Wagenen was charged with 1 count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in connection with a girl between the ages of 7 and 9, which occurred between 2013 and 2015. Those were the years the Church hired Van Wagenen to produce the temple videos. This was after he admitted to his Stake President in 1993 that he molested a 13-year-old boy that year. Maybe you believe in forgiveness (I do too) but I also believe protecting children should come first before giving second chances to child molestors. If only 1 victim in 10 comes forward about sexual abuse, we can extrapolate from those statistics that for every 1 child that comes forward, there are 9 who are silent. I doubt this boy in 1993 and this girl two decades later were Van Wagenen’s only victims.

The latest statistics show that in 2015 there were over 20,000 investigations of child abuse and neglect. The state population in that year was close to 3 million. During 2015 the rate of child abuse was 10.5 per 1,000 children, and those were just the cases reported to the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Out of those 41.1% were physically abused and 21.1% were sexually abused.

Child abuse happens in every demographic you can think of, including religion. Child abuse is not unique to the LDS Church, but as a citizen of this state and a person who was raised in the Church, the child abuse statistics hit a little closer to home for me. In my position at my non-profit I track all the publicly reported cases of infant abuse in the country and we have seen a rise in infant abuse in Utah since the beginning of 2019.

My purpose in writing this is not to accuse the Church of anything, but to wake up those members who don’t believe child abuse happens in our community. It does. It absolutely does. Unfortunately what I see in LDS circles is a lot of burying of heads in the sand because people are either in denial that child abuse, and especially child sexual abuse, could be a problem in their community. It’s a problem in every community. And when known child predators are being asked to produce videos for our holiest of places, we need to stop and demand better of our leaders. I’m sorry, but we do not have the gold standard in protecting against child abuse in the Church. Just the child abuse statistics in Utah alone prove that.

During this month, I’m asking all of you what you can do to help eradicate child abuse in our communities. The motto for us CASA volunteers is “I am for the Child.” Can you please also be for the child? Can you put the safety and welfare of children ahead of your loyalty to family members, friends, church members, and institutions? In Utah, all adults are mandatory reporters of child abuse. The National Child Abuse Hotline to report child abuse in the United States if 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

And remember, when you see a blue pinwheel on a lawn, know that that precious young person could have been spared abuse, and possibly death, if only one person had spoken up and had been for the child.


Risa is a full-time social worker in child abuse prevention, a part-time graduate student, and a mother of 4. In her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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10 Responses

  1. Abby Hansen says:

    Somehow I’ve missed that most recent charge to Sterling Van Wagenen from this past week. How terrible! I live in Utah, and I’m probably guilty of being casual with where my kids go to play. This is a good reminder for all of us, and especially me. Thanks.

  2. Thank you soo much for writing this! It’s been weighing heavy on my heart and I want to do something to help the children. I’m concerned by the lack of effort made to address this in our church. It’s distressing to me that we focus more energy on dress codes etc and nothing has been done on this. And what happens with all those cases against leaders abusing children? Why don’t we hear about what’s being done? What stance does the church take when these cases come up? Are they helping the child or the leader? Do our tithing funds get used to pay these people to remain silent? So many questions I have and nowhere to ask them. It’s weighing heavy on me to do something so thank you for a very well written article. Keep doing the work of angels! God bless!

  3. Violadiva says:

    That Vanwagenen could have ever been tapped by the church to produce the temple videos after his abuse of the young boy in the 90s is equal parts horrifying and bewildering. Repentance aside, there should be some line about what types of assignments recovering child abusers are allowed to have in the church system.

    I took a child abuse prevention course + background check as part of my professional organization credential. Having the course about recognizing Grooming behaviors was so helpful. Since there is no real profile for child abusers, we have to look at the behaviors of every person who works with children.
    And as an educator myself, I leaned even more ways I need to check my own behavior so I don’t cross the boundaries of people I work with.

    If everyone in the ward who works with children took a course on recognizing grooming behaviors, plus the two deep leadership,plus windows in the doors, plus background checks, plus parents holding healthy boundaries, we might actually see a big reduction of systemic abuse. At least then we’d be taking it seriously.

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you for writing on this important topic, and the sobering statistics. I have trusted people with my children far to easily in the past and have been educating myself over the last few years. so so important

  5. Em says:

    I’m so anxious about this, and I worry about walking the line between allowing men to be nurturing but worrying that a man’s interest in my children must be pathological if he isn’t dad. I’ve been having talks with my preschooler about his private parts and not having secrets but I still feel so anxious that somehow I’ll miss signs and fail to protect my kiddos.

    • Risa says:

      “Have I done enough?” is a fear I think a lot of us parents share.

      And even when we have done our best, it’s sometimes is not enough.

  6. JJ says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I work with another organization called CASA (Coalition Against Sexual Assault) and this is a huge concern for us as well – doubly so for me as a mother of young children.

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