Hamiltonians are increasingly aware of the wonderful city we live in, one with growing appeal and tremendous potential. Witness the number of Toronto visitors discovering our green spaces for day trips, or the economic growth we are experiencing as a community. We have vision, enthusiasm, grit, and solid prospects. Part of our vision, at least the official city version, calls for us to be “the best place to raise a child”. On this front, we still have considerable work to do.

We saw a dire indicator of this recently with the Hamilton Police Service’s report of 2014 crime statistics. Our community has once again seen an increase in reported sexual crimes against children (up 38 percent from 2013, up 25 percent over the past 5 years). Last year, 11 percent of all sexual assaults reported to local police were sexual assaults against children. While these are serious and despicable threats, known and recognized to have traumatic effects for children, we as a community still find it difficult to engage in conversations about this issue. Would we react differently if there had in childhood cancer rates in Hamilton last year? What if the last five years had seen an average increase of 25 per cent in youth traffic fatalities? It may be an uncomfortable topic for discussion, but the impact of sexual crimes against children requires us to find a way to address what’s happening to our youngest citizens.

Music, entertainment, education, health and wellness… it’s hard to find an aspect of daily life that hasn’t changed since those in my generation were children. We may joke about helicopter parents or bemoan the quality of today’s TV programming, but in reality one of the biggest changes to childhood today may be the exposure of young people to a growing range of sexualized and often traumatic experiences. International trainer and advocate Cordelia Anderson visited Hamilton in 2010 and described the “pornification of childhood” and the threats posed to children by a “hyper-sexual” society. Things that were once considered adult in nature are now increasingly part of a child’s daily life — on TV, in advertising, online, in fashion, even in the toy store. These threats are more insidious than the trauma that can result from a divorce, or a serious accident, and are less easily recognized and understood. But make no mistake, there is clear and compelling evidence about the impact our sexualized culture is having on many children.

Daun Kauffman, a long-time educator in Pennsylvania, recently wrote about childhood trauma as “a tragic, life-changing assault on the minds and lives of children. It can result when adults who are supposed to love and protect, instead, cause hurt: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; single-parent homes (because of separation, divorce, incarceration); violence; community violence; substance abuse; and mental illness. The impact on a child can be devastating personally. It is powerful and shockingly prevalent.”
Locally, the statistics are indeed grim: an estimated one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually victimized before their 18th birthday. Problem sexual behaviours among young people are a growing problem, particularly within families (siblings, cousins) but also within peer groups. Children are acquiring sexual knowledge at an earlier age, and often long before they have any context or understanding about boundaries, privacy, appropriate relationships, or personal safety. Most are ill-equipped for threats that come from those they know and trust — far more prevalent than “stranger danger”.

Many are optimistic about Ontario’s newly revised health and physical education curriculum, which will give young people greater knowledge about sexual health and protective factors. Accurate and factual information should empower students and serve as a prevention tool, but our community’s response to sexual crimes and other traumatic childhood experiences cannot be limited to the classroom, or to policing or child protection officials. Prominent experts including Hamilton’s Dr. Harriet MacMillan have focused on the impact trauma and maltreatment can have on a young person and have drawn attention to the need for effective responses across communities. In his popular book The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Bruce Perry suggested “what maltreated and traumatized children most need is a healthy community”. Yes, treatment and therapy and education are helpful, but ultimately Perry cites the number and quality of a child’s relationships and the need for a healthier society overall as factors to emphasize.

To be the best place to raise a child, our community will need adults everywhere watching and listening, caring, acting appropriately, and supporting parents as well as children. We need voices speaking out from every corner of Hamilton when threats to youngsters arise. Building a healthy community means reducing the vulnerability of our youngest, and building the strengths of adults whose role in protecting children is so crucial. Things have changed — technology and particularly the Internet have opened wide many doors that pose risks and dangers for young people. Our responses to the things we find uncomfortable about this reflect what we value — we can engage and have the tough conversations, or we can pretend we don’t have a problem in Hamilton. The threats won’t go away on their own, and those doors won’t close themselves. But the Hamilton I know, once aware of this serious issue, will undoubtedly respond accordingly.