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New Canadian helpline aims to reduce child sexual abuse — before it happens

Talking for Change is a resource for people who want help managing inappropriate thoughts and urges.
The anonymous helpline is at 1-833-703-3303 (toll-free in Canada), Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (12 to 6 p.m. EDT).

In recent years, more education and resources have been devoted to helping parents protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation.

And 'Good touch, bad touch' has been teaching children ways to protect themselves for decades.

There are also programs for offenders who sexually abuse children or those caught with child sex abuse images, officially called child pornography under Canada’s Criminal Code.

But there wasn’t a clear place to turn for those who wanted help before they committed an offence, says one expert.

A relatively new program aims to help Canadian youth and adults who are experiencing troubling thoughts or urges about children.

Talking for Change, which is funded by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is a specialized program led by experts that hopes to prevent child sexual abuse before it happens.

Psychologist Ainslie Heasman, one of the founders of the program, had worked with offenders for years and noted the global gap in services. 

It is estimated that globally, about 18 per cent of girls and eight per cent of boys will experience sexual abuse as children. These figures likely under-represent the problem as many victims don't report their abuse.

"The secondary prevention piece, which is really about targeting people who are ultimately or would ultimately be responsible for the abuse. So, those who are at risk of offending either online or offline," Heasman said, explaining why this program was created. 

"It was really a desire to move that prevention further upstream and not focus just on preventing the second offence, but how do we prevent the first offence?"

Talking for Change, which launched in August 2021, offers the ability to talk on the phone or chat online in over 25 languages anonymously with clinicians. 

If a caller wants more extensive therapy, the clinician will direct them to appropriate resources.

There is a lot of stigma around having these inappropriate thoughts that makes it hard for those who need it to reach out and ask for it, Heasman said. 

One of the biggest misconceptions is that individuals with a sexual interest in children are destined to offend and that there's no way to help, she said.

“And that's a huge misconception. And if folks believe that it's true.. [then] implicit within that is that there's nothing we can do to prevent sexual violence towards children. And that premise is entirely wrong. Because there's always a day, a week or a month, and years before somebody engages in sexual violence or views child sexual abuse material. And those are the days in which I think, as a society, we have the responsibility to offer them help or create a path for them to access help so that they can make choices that are healthier and safer for them and for children."

Heasman said of the more than 100 people who have reached out so far, most have never told anyone before about what they're struggling with.

She knows there are likely those who don't want money or resources aimed at folks with these tendencies. There's the 'put them all on an island’ mentality, but that doesn't ultimately protect kids, she said.

"I understand the emotional reaction; I understand the reaction to talking about child sexual abuse, but we've got to take that commitment and desire to protect children and actually translate that into strategies that work. And not things that aren't going to happen, like putting them on a deserted island.” 

Offering people help is something we can do, she said. 

Find out more on the Talking for Change website.

The anonymous helpline is at 1-833-703-3303 (toll-free in Canada), Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (12 to 6 p.m. EDT). 

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