A new program aimed at reducing sexual abuse strives to reach young children with healthy messages about sexual development — before they hear false information or learn harsh lessons about sexuality elsewhere.

The MCVP Crisis and Prevention Center’s newest education program targets children between the ages of 3 and 8.

That’s because waiting until the teenage years to start teaching about sexual abuse prevention is simply too late, said Robin P. Christopherson, the center’s executive director.

Nearly 30 percent of female rape victims were first sexually assaulted between the ages of 11 and 17, according to statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. And about 12 percent of female rape victims and 28 percent of male victims were first raped when they were 10 or younger.

The Keene-based center’s new program, Care for Kids, was designed to teach children to respect others’ boundaries and know their own, and talk to them about how to handle feelings of sexuality. There are six units: bodies, babies, feelings, touching, bedtime and asking for help.

The idea is to educate children when they’re first beginning to receive messages about sexuality, said Kasey LaFlam, education and community outreach coordinator for MCVP.

The program also includes Nuturing Healthy Sexual Development training, or workshops and information for parents and people who work with children, so they can learn about the signs and symptoms of abuse. Among those is how to spot “grooming behaviors,” or the actions potential perpetrators take to make children more vulnerable to abuse, in the hopes of catching concerning behavior from both adults and minors before it leads to a crime.

There’s information about facts and myths on sexual assaults on minors. For example, the rate of false reporting for child sexual assault is low, ranging between 0.5 percent and 8 percent, LaFlam said.

There are also charts of appropriate developmental behavior so parents can easily differentiate between normal and abnormal behaviors.

Most importantly, the classes teach adults how to answer children’s questions, and what to do if a child tells them he or she has been assaulted, because there’s little purpose in teaching children to speak up if adults around them don’t know how to respond appropriately, Christopherson said.

Nationwide, the incidence of child sexual abuse has declined in recent decades, alongside drops in other violent crimes, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

A 2009 article by the center’s director, David P. Finkelhor, found that sexual abuse substantiated by state child protection authorities declined 53 percent between 1992 and 2006.

But sexual abuse statistics always have been difficult to track because of the high rate of non-reporting. And rates of child sexual abuse are even trickier, due to the variations in the way agencies collect data, according to the UNH research center.

In New Hampshire, the Division for Children, Youth and Families found 915 children were victims of some form of child abuse or neglect in 2012. Of those, 121, or 13 percent, were victims of child sexual assault.

Yet those numbers only reflect part of the picture, since the department only gets involved when the offender is a relative or member of the household the child lives in, DCYF Director Maggie Bishop said.

Locally, Keene police have arrested two people on charges of aggravated felonious sexual assault on a person under 16 in the past six months. But that number also is clouded, since police sometimes investigate sexual assault cases and then hand them over to the Cheshire County Attorney’s Office to handle before any arrests are made.

And cases tracked by the county attorney’s office only reflect the sexual abuses that end up in court, which most don’t, Christopherson said.

Statistics may be murky, but what’s clear, Christopherson said, is that traumatic childhood experiences can have long-term, community-wide ramifications.

Those include effects on brain development and mental and physical health issues, including substance abuse, depression and obesity.

Women who come to the violence prevention center struggling to break the cycle of partner abuse often times are the victims of sexual assault at a young age, Christopherson said.

“Healing can absolutely happen ... but if (victims of child sexual abuse) don’t get the help they need in a timely matter, that’s difficult,” she said.

The Care for Kids program also is used in Vermont, which in 2009, became one of the first states to pass a law mandating child sexual abuse prevention in all schools. And since 2011, nine states have passed “Erin’s Law,” which mandates sexual abuse awareness and prevention from kindergarten on, according to the website of the woman the law is named for, Erin Merryn.

New Hampshire, though, has no such mandate, which means individual schools and districts have control over whether they’ll introduce programs like Care for Kids in their classrooms, Christopherson said.

The Monadnock center started offering the program after receiving a $20,000 grant from the N.H. Charitable Foundation. A $10,000 grant from money raised by the Keene Elm City Rotary Club through the Clarence DeMar Marathon will help maintain the program in its second year, Christopherson said.

So far, the center has hosted seven workshops with adults who work with children and is focusing on introducing classes in area preschools, LaFlam said.

The biggest barrier right now, LaFlam said, is getting parents involved. MCVP won’t start its six-week program in the schools until parents understand the curriculum and receive their own prevention training.

The center was prepared to start with one preschool in the region, but had to push back the start date after receiving no response from parents to schedule a meeting.

Christopherson doesn’t think there’s any one reason that keeps parents from participating. Some are simply busy, either working or being involved in other community activities.

Some might find the topic uncomfortable. Others might find it painful if they are a victim of sexual abuse.

And then there’s the belief among some that “it won’t happen to my child,” Christopherson said.

But while part of the program is to teach kids, the burden is not on young children to protect themselves.

That’s why the Monadnock center believes involving adults is just as imperative as involving kids, Christopherson said.

“It’s everyone’s job to keep children safe.”

Kaitlin Mulhere can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or kmulhere@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @KMulhereKS.