After being asked to create a program to help the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph recognize signs of sexual abuse, Cathy Morrison found herself doing much more than teaching – she began listening.
A consultant specializing in leadership development, strategic planning and executive coaching, Morrison had already developed a program to help adults identify and report signs of suspected sexual abuse of minors. And as she presented her program to various organizations, survivors inundated her with stories of their own sexual assault.
"Often, I was the first person people spoke with," Morrison says.
These conversations inspired her young adult novel, "Say Something."
Though "Say Something" is fiction, Morrison incorporates aspects of people's real experiences into the story of one main character coping with life as a sexual assault survivor, and the often difficult decision of reporting the crime.
One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and only 12% of the crimes will be reported.
Sexual predators often take calculated steps before assaulting their victim. The steps, which experts on sexual assault refer to as "grooming," are when a perpetrator works to gain the trust of the victim, family or community, making themselves appear to be unlikely culprits.
In Morrison's book, the victim — a girl named Maggie — reports her crime but is convinced to recant her story. Morrison says this commonly occurs in real life.
"This is something that happens fairly often," Morrison says. "A child will report and be convinced by an adult to say, 'Oh no, I made a mistake.'"
Other times a child may float a "trial balloon," an inexplicit way of telling an adult that they’re uncomfortable with someone. When the listener rejects the gesture, she says, "you lessen the chances of them speaking up again."
Morrison says she wants more people to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and grooming, and for communities to be prepared to respond.
Signs of an inappropriate relationship can vary depending on each child and their age. One child may display subtle signs of discomfort with the perpetrator, while another might have a drastic change in behavior.
A person doesn't have to be the victim to report signs of abuse, Morrison says, and any person reporting can remain anonymous. (More information is available at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault or the Missiouri or Kansas child abuse hotline.)
Although "Say Something" is fiction, Morrison strives to create a realistic depiction without using graphic details of what might occur leading up to a sexual assault. She also portrays the state of mind of a victim and how they can receive help.
In order to protect another child from falling prey to her abuser, the heroine in "Say Something" decides to report her assault again, this time calling an abuse hotline. Morrison depicts that call as comforting and helpful.
"I think it's important for people to know that when you make the call, it starts a process to ensure that a child is safe," she says. "It doesn't send a SWAT team knocking on someone's door. And I think some people have that impression."