Forum covers sexual abuse, child safety

Shelby County Sheriff's Office deputy Russell Bedsole speaks during a Jan. 22 child safety forum at Westwood Baptist Church as Tom Whitten with the Alabama Bureau of investigation, left, looks on. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

A panel of law enforcement officers, church members and child counselors shared tips to identify and prevent sexual abuse during a Jan. 22 forum at Alabaster’s Westwood Baptist Church.

The forum was held in the wake of the Jan. 4 arrest of longtime local teacher Daniel Acker Jr., who served as a youth minister at Westwood in the early 1990s. Acker is being held in the Shelby County jail on six counts of sexual abuse after police said he confessed to molesting more than 20 girls during his 25-year teaching tenure in Alabaster.

During the forum, Shelby County Sheriff’s Department deputy Russell Bedsole said sexual crimes involving children are reported frequently each year, but said many cases are not reported.

In 2011, Bedsole said the sheriff’s department received 72 reports of sex crimes involving children.

“That’s way too many. That doesn’t take into account the crimes reported in cities in Shelby County, and that’s not counting unreported cases,” Bedsole said. “One in five girls and one in 10 boys will be victimized before they are 18 years old, and one in three of those won’t tell.

“We ignore our victims because they say it was a teacher, a counselor or even a police officer (who molested them),” Bedsole added. “The people who victimize children are usually not strangers, and they can appear to be respectable citizens.”

Several speakers during the event encouraged the about 100 people in attendance to keep their children safe by stay involved in their kids’ lives.

“We can’t just think we have a good relationship with our children. We have to empower them to be able to talk to us,” said WWBC member and parent Shannon Rumley, who said she was molested by a family member more than 25 years ago.

Rumley said she was scared to report her abuse until about five years ago.

“It keeps happening because it’s something we don’t want to talk about,” Rumley said.

Cyndi Abercrombie and Debbie Wilbourn, who both work at the Prescott House child advocacy center in Jefferson County, said child predators “know what to tell kids to keep them from telling” their family members.

Wilbourn said kids often display several warning signs when they have been abused, such as mimicking adult-like sexual behavior with their toys or using slang words for private body parts.

Wilbourn encouraged parents to praise their children “for their bravery in coming forward” if their children report sexual abuse.