The Healing Potential of Community

By Natalie Najman
Smith College School for Social Work, Class of 2021
Stop It Now! intern 

I don't know what exactly I expected when I was assigned an internship position with Stop It Now! for my psychology schooling. Although I had not heard of Stop It Now!, I was drawn to an organization that wanted to help community members who are affected by sexual abuse. I anticipated programs like I had growing up: “Stranger Danger” and “Good/Bad Touches” that taught children what was appropriate.  I assumed there would be community building and educational lectures.

What I found, though, was an international nonprofit that had compiled prevention education far exceeding any single program I remembered from my childhood. These resources help people recognize harmful behavior and address it with appropriate action.  

I found an organization that recognized the impact of childhood sexual abuse permeates beyond any single incident. Within this lens, I learned that community engagement is one of the most valuable tools in prevention and recovery. Community engagement can come in many forms: a friend to hold your hand and someone to call when you need to talk, weekly church services or monthly support groups. Community engagement can offer scaffolding when you need it most. 

While on my internship, I had the privilege of observing Stop It Now’s Helpline, a confidential national prevention line that can provide direct help to individuals with questions or concerns about child sexual abuse. During my observations, this role of the community became particularly salient. It was clear that community could mean the difference between helplessness and hopefulness when facing incidents of child sexual abuse.  

In two back-to-back conversations, this difference was highlighted. In one call, the caller’s family was impacted by child sexual abuse and this person’s community was a beacon of support. The caller was struggling with difficult issues related to sexual abuse, but from church to friends and family meetings to therapy sessions, the caller identified the ways in which they were surrounded by support during this difficult time. In the next call, another caller’s family was also impacted by child sexual abuse, but they expressed a resounding silence and despair. The caller’s family was not supportive, experiences with therapy had not been successful, and they didn’t know very many people in their new town. To feel alone in the wake of abuse can make recovery feel insurmountable.  

We see this recognition of the importance of community throughout child sexual abuse legislation and prevention. Community notification policies like Megan’s Law, which enables law enforcement to notify communities when convicted sex offenders reside in their neighborhoods, are often framed in ways that are supposed to protect community. Community programing, like school-based prevention programs and adult trainings, help cultivate policies and practices for preventing child sexual abuse.    

Stop It Now! has reinforced the efficacy of approaching child sexual abuse with an socioecological model, building out from the individual to interpersonal relationships to the surrounding community to ultimately inspire societal responsibility and change. This organization has contributed to my own awareness and developed my own knowledge and confidence in advocacy and community strengthening.