Report sees progress in battle to prevent child sex abuse

Adults are more likely to take action to prevent child sexual abuse after participating in the Protect Our Children program in rural Oregon, according to a report released by the College of Education’s Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect.

This article first appeared in Around the O on May 15, 2023.

Adults are more likely to take action to prevent child sexual abuse after participating in the Protect Our Children program in rural Oregon, according to a report released by the College of Education’s Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect.

The seven-year impact report demonstrated overwhelmingly positive findings for Protect Our Children, the Ford Family Foundation’s child sexual abuse prevention project. The program has built a network of organizations in rural Oregon and Northern California committed to child sexual abuse prevention, created a change in attitudes towards child sexual abuse prevention and awareness in training participants, and inspired adults to take concrete action to prevent abuse.

The Ford Family Foundation “has always focused on the well-being of children and families in the rural communities of Oregon and Siskiyou County,” said board Chair Toby Luther. “We launched Protect Our Children to specifically focus on the prevention of child sexual abuse, knowing that raising awareness about this particular issue is key to ending it.”

Keavy Cook, director of children, youth and families at the foundation, added that Protect Our Children was specifically conceived after the Pennsylvania State University scandal and conviction of Jerry Sandusky.

“There was a lot of discussion on who could have said something, what could have been done differently,” Cook said. “How do we change those norms so that people do talk about it, there is a conversation, the norm is to say something?”

Protect Our Children, led by project director Mary Ratliff, trained more than 40,000 adults in 12 rural counties throughout Oregon and one county in Northern California in child sexual abuse prevention by partnering with 17 nonprofit organizations to implement a child sexual abuse prevention curriculum. The curriculum was presented through three-hour-long workshops that included training videos and structured group discussions.

The foundation reached out to the Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect for suggestions about who might be the best choice to serve as evaluators and it made the choice to serve.

“We’re involved because our mission is to change the conditions that allow childhood trauma to occur in the first place,” explained Jeffrey Todahl, associate professor in the College of Education and director of the center.

The center’s participation as evaluators included collecting data from Lane County about the effects of child sexual abuse here. The center found that 29 percent of Lane County youth are sexual abuse survivors.

Those statistics were echoed in the findings among participants in the workshops, where 33 percent of participants who identified as people of color themselves indicated they were sexually assaulted in childhood.

The center used a host of tools to collect data from Protect Our Children to explore what worked and what didn’t and to demonstrate the power of prevention. They conducted more than 100 individual and group interviews and more than 10,000 pre- and post-training surveys to look for changes in the participants’ knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs.

They then followed up with participants 6, 12 and 18 months later and cross-compared those results with 457 randomly selected Oregonians to measure the extent of the effect and see if the changes had continued. Results indicated that the changes had persisted, and in fact, sometimes they even got stronger.

Participants demonstrated increased knowledge about child sexual abuse and its prevention as well as pro-prevention attitudes and actions. Notably, participants were more than two times more hopeful that child sexual abuse can be reduced and three times more likely to believe that it is preventable.

Partner organizations said the work had profound effects on them.

“Many of the participating organizations didn’t have prevention as a part of their mission statement” before the project, Todahl said. “It really has been transformative throughout many Oregon communities.”

The project also fostered a statewide co-learning network among the partner organizations, which will better position rural Oregon for long-term child sexual abuse prevention efforts and community engagement.

The evaluation also provided data about who was coming to the training, which proved important to the foundation’s investment in making sure that Protect Our Children participants held diverse identities. The majority of participants were white and college-educated, which contributed to a shift in focus for the trainings and has eventually led to greater focus on LGBTQ curriculum and consideration for how to get more men involved.

Todahl said UO students from the College of Education and across campus participated in the evaluation process by reviewing survey data, making phone calls, completing qualitative interviews and writing reports.

In 2022, Protect Our Children expanded to add an urban site. Moving forward, the project will begin working on legislative advocacy, add new tools around internet safety and trafficking to its curriculum, implement a post-training for parents and caregivers, and improve its Spanish to English translation, Ratliff said.

Todahl said the project “demonstrates the way in which an Oregon-based philanthropic organization can partner with a research unit to really complement each other’s strengths towards systemic change by mobilizing communities. The way in which evaluation can support the development of an initiative like this has been powerfully demonstrated.”

By Ari Wolfe, College of Education

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