What counts in child abuse prevention? A call out to public officials

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? It seems not only as though every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, but also that attention to social issues runs in cycles.

But that’s not true for me — child welfare and protection have been the center of my career in public administration, and I ask my colleagues to take a minute and hear me out.

One evening, I was in the audience for a panel discussion about performance management in the public sector that featured speakers from the offices of several governors. My inspiration came not from the stage, however, but from a fellow member of the audience.

While discussing how to use performance monitoring systems in public social service agencies to manage response times to reports of child abuse and caseload sizes, a representative from one state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” But she was mistaking investigation  for prevention and this is a mistake that too many of us make far too often.

Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard MPA candidate,  a high- ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. And of course the public should be pleased that the national reports are showing some small declines in the number of child abuse cases.  After all, state and federal tax dollars have been supporting child protection services systems for three decades now and we should expect to see some results.   But millions of kids are still at risk and the effects are awful.

Here’s my Child Abuse Prevention Month challenge to public administrators:  Along with counting how a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting a few other statistics:

  • Like how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby?
  • Or how many new parents are served by a trained family support worker to help them through those confusing and sleep-deprived first few months of parenthood?
  • And how many parents have a job paying a living wage from an employer with family-friendly policies?
  • And how many adults in a community know how to recognize the sign that a pedophile is operating in their midst?
  • And how many courts determine the status of dependent children before a parent is jailed?
  • And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect.   The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that the lifetime cost from a single case of child maltreatment exceeds $210,000. Preventing child abuse is not only the right thing to do, it’s cost effective public policy.

Every aspect of public administration touches the lives of children and families, and we could all do a better job keeping children safe, families healthy and communities strong.

Be prepared — Sex Abuse CAN happen here!

Some people like to believe that abuse of children is a problem restricted to the poor, or disadvantaged.  No so.   The sex abuse allegations involving a prep school upscale enough to  include the son of a governor  are a stark reminder that people who prey on kids can be anywhere.

Predators come in all shapes, sizes, neighborhoods and income levels.  They can ingratiate themselves into the lives of children and families as friends, coaches, clergy, baby sitters or teachers.   The most important step a parent can take is to have  open and honest  age-appropriate  conversations with their children throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Natural discussions that include all parts of the body are a key.   Conversational lessons about nice relationships — the kind where everyone considers each others feelings –can start with toddlers and continue as children develop a wider circle of acquaintances.  And here’s the step that most people skip — ensure that your child’s school and the other institutions in your community have take steps to prevent sexual abuse and have a well thought out policy on how to respond if allegations are made.

The best news to come out of this story  from the NJ prep school is that the administration appears to be behaving responsibly.   The alleged perpetrator was brought back from another state to face the NJ investigation and press reports quote his superiors as saying he is being kept under tight restrictions.

The title of this blog post mirrors the title of the last chapter in my book, The Sex Wise Parent.  There’s a lot to learn about being a prepared family and community, and you can find it in my book.

 

 

 

When Talking Sex with Kids, Parents…….. Please Act Your Age

While conducting workshops for professionals working in child sexual abuse, I often start by having them work in small groups and answer the question:   “where did you first learn about sex?”   Their answers are all over the map, and most have one thing in common; as adults they remember the feelings being shown by the person speaking to them as strongly as they remember the words.  People remember their parents feeling embarrassed — even blushing bright red — or seeming to be angry at having to have the conversation.   Others remember older kids acting as if this information was forbidden, or illicit; never to be spoken of outside of the confines of their friendship.

Anyone who took a basic psychology course had to learn about Pavlov and his dogs.   He teaches us that feelings become ‘contiguous’ or stuck together with experiences.    If your child experiences receiving their early sex information in an environment filled with embarrassment, anger or secrecy, they may be at risk of associating these feeling with their sexuality, and that’s not good.   Secrecy, and anger and embarrassment undermine sexual health and safety. When you speak to your child about sexuality, bring the positive, parental feelings of love, intimacy, respect and concern.  Even if your information isn’t perfect, your lesson will be priceless!

A Sex Educator can help in the aftermath of sex abuse

The LA elementary school which attracted national attention for the disgraceful acts of a few teachers and the courage of the administration to act decisively on their behalf now has a new principal.   Dolores Palacio, New Miramonte principal has a long road ahead to achieve many goals, and none so important as regaining the trust of parents.  In order to do so, she has to establish a new, healthy and open sexual climate in the school and include all faculty, staff, parents and students in her efforts.

Scholars studying school achievement often talk about school climate; in my book the Sex-Wise Parent,  I borrowed their basic concepts to discuss sexual climate   to describe the overall  feeling  in a school building around sexual issues.  Palacio has an unprecedented opportunity to establish a new, healthy, open sexual climate, based on honesty, respect, accurate information and parental involvement.  To help this process along, I urge her to identify credentialed sexuality educators in her community and hire them to do the following:

  • Offer all staff a mandatory in-service training on how to discuss sexuality with children in an age appropriate way.  This comprehensive workshop should include a review of anatomy and physiology, the opportunity to practice using appropriate sexuality terms.
  • Offer all parents workshops on discussing sexuality with their children, including both the healthy, loving aspects and the opportunities for exploitation such as the acts that took place in their school. In many families it’s likely that this tragedy triggered their first discussion about sexuality with their kids; if this is the case, a balanced perspective is needed.
  • Offer teachers assistance integrating sexual issues into thier curricula in  the most  approproiate way;  health, bilogy, art, literature, history and other subjects often have unerlying sexual themes, and this is not the time for Miramonte faculty to ignore them.

Kids’ early lessons about sex can last a life time.  The services of sexuality educators  can be a remarkable asset for the Miramonte community as they work to support healing  for their kids, families and throughout the community.

Find more at www.SexWiseParent.com

Was removing the whole staff of a school with allegations of sex abuse a good idea? YOU BET!!

Superintendent John Deasy of the Los Angeles Unified School District took a courageous step  this week  by removing  the entire staff of one of the largest elementary schools in the country in the face of  evidence  supporting allegations of sexual abuse of children by his staff.  Of course, the fact that the most notoriously botched investigation of child sexual abuse  (the McMartin pre-school case which generated a trial lasting from 1987-1990) took place in a neighboring county, could have provided some strong motivation!

The Associated Press quoted Deasy: “We intend to interview every adult, every adult who works at that school, whether they are a teacher or administrator, or whether they are an after-school playground worker or a custodian or a secretary. I mean every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte.”

Advocates for preventing child sexual abuse should be waiting anxiously to read the findings of this investigation. Scholars in the field of education have spent decades studying the concept of school climate, defined as the way it feels to be in a specific school building. School climate has been shown to impact academic outcomes, student violence and other important issues.  In my book The Sex Wise Parent, I expand on that concept and focus an entire chapter on helping parents understand and pay attention to the sexual climate of their child’s schools.  We can no longer ignore the potential risk to kids who attend schools staffed by educators and administrators who are not paying attention to implicit and explicit message kids get from them about sex. A report published by the US Department of Education includes the estimate that at least 5 percent of all kids have some type of sexual contact with school personnel.

Deasy is right that every single adult in that school helps set the sexual climate.  For a checklist on assessing the sexual climate of your child’s school click here.

What parents must learn from the Penn State allegations of sexual abuse

I guess  it’s understandable that the big question right now seems to be what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.   As a Penn State alum, this makes me beyond sad.   As an undergraduate, I actually  had President Spanier as a professor in the College of Human Development, and my first masters degree is from what was then the College of Health and Physical Education.  Parterno was  among that faculty in my day, so this is personal to me.

I’ve devoted a large part of my career to the investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual abuse of children, much of it based on the foundation of the fine education I received from Penn State.  We cannot condemn the entire institution.  And solely focusing on Paterno – who I can’t help but thinking of as the Pope of Penn State –  will not save any children.   It’s truly  unthinkable to me that a 21st century professional could think a phone call to anyone other than police was a sufficient response to an alleged eye-witness report of a child’s rape in one of his facilities.  On the other hand,  the thought of someone raping a child in one of his facilities may have seem  so completely implausible that perhaps  he thought his minimal response was adequate.  Anyone who has ever had to face the crushing reality that a partner has been unfaithful for years or that a trusted employee has been embezzling money  knows that the human mind  only understands that which seems possible to us. Maybe, just maybe, this seemed so impossible to Paterno that he found his response sufficient.

So here’s one lesson for parents — Do not ever forget that the sexual abuse of children is a reality and the perpetrator really can be anyone.  Even someone who appears to be a fine upstanding person who cares for your child and maybe even your family. Even a favorite teacher.  A coach. The person you’re dating. The babysitter.

Here’s another lesson —  There is absolutely no choice but to knowas much as you can about  every adult spending time with your child.   There is no substitute for vigilance.  A convicted pedophile I interviewed for my book The Sex Wise Parent made it  quite clear that kids lacking vigilant parents or caretakers were much more attractive targets. Pedophile coaches notice which parents stay for practice or show up unannounced then really pay attention to what’s happening on the field.

Here’s a third — Pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and sometimes your family, and seduce your child by meeting his or her needs. This need could be emotional such as affection and attention from an adult male, or tangible as Todd Bridges described regarding his abuse by his publicist in his autobiography KillingWillis. By the time sex is introduced the child (or in some awful cases,  the family) may accept sex as the price to be paid for the positive points of the relationship. The allegations reported in the  Grand Jury report describe the seduction of vulnerable children with trips and gifts.

And the last lesson for now is this; families must provide children with information and language about sexuality.   I’ll provide detail on how parents can do this in future posts.  For now, concentrate on opening your mind to be able to think the unthinkable.  Maybe if Joe Pa had been able to do that a few kids might have been saved.

 

What’s the Sexual Climate in Your Child’s School?

How often do you think about the weather? Most of us pay no attention to the actual climate surrounding us unless something extraordinary happens — a horrible storm, or a gloriously sunny day in the middle of winter. Likewise, most people pay no attention to the sexual climate in the places they spend their time each day until something doesn’t feel right. Maybe the jokes are just a little bit too risqué, or displays of affection don’t feel quite right, or questionable photos are hanging over a colleague’s desk; something just feels creepy. Apparently, sexual climate in Mason High School in Ohio was roiling into the perfect storm and at least 5 known victims were caught in the path. High school health and gym teacher Stacey Schuyler was found guilty on 16 counts of sexual battery because she decided to have sex with the football team and no one got in her way.

Kids spend most of their waking hours in school, and schools each have their own climate or “social feel”. Education experts conduct studies looking at the relationship between school climate and bullying, school climate and achievement, school climate and discipline, and other issues. In the same way, parents need to examine the concept of school climate and sexual safety and understand how to recognize signs that the climate may be turning dangerous.

It is inconceivable that no one knew anything at all about this abuse of power and trust. What was it about the climate in this high school that held this secret as closely as any member of a dysfunctional family hiding incest until one brave soul contacted authorities? Were sexual innuendo’s acceptable? Were male and females treated differently? Was the sexual climate so closed that no one ever discussed sex, or so open that having sex with the football team seemed as American as Apple Pie?

Judge Robert Peeler found Stacy Schuler guilty on 16 felony counts of sexual battery and three misdemeanor counts of providing alcohol to minors, and good for him. Women who abuse boys deserve no special treatment because of the gender of their victims. The male autonomic response to arousal renders him even more vulnerable to devastating confusion when a pleasurable physical feeling becomes associated with a negative emotional experience. We’ve long known about male predators, but females can be just as predatory and hide behind the self-delusion that they’re doing a boy a favor. That’s absurd; the devastation cause by the abuse of power by a person with authority over a child has no upside. People tend to be less suspicious of females, particularly teachers who are in a position to nurture young spirits, making their abuse of authority particularly odious.

The sexual climate in school can vary from building to building in a district and from year to year in the same building. Throughout my career I have worked with teachers from schools where everyone “knows” that a teacher is having sex with students and no one speaks up, and with teachers from schools where an off-color joke by a teacher is grounds for disciplinary action.

What do you know about the sexual climate in your child’s school? You never want to find yourself in the sad position of the parents of these boys;  heartbreaking testimony we hear from victims and thier loved ones is a wake up call for parents everywhere.

Here’s a chekcklist   to help assess the sexual climate in your childs school; you can learn  more from my book, The Sex Wise Parent.

It’s Child Abuse Prevention Month: Do you know an Ashley Judd?

The woman seemed to have it all — beauty, talent, a show business pedigree, a high profile loving spouse. A few years ago she chose to disappear from public life and seek the answer for her unhappiness. She has emerged as an ambassador, spokesperson and hero to victims of sexual victimization of all kinds and with a degree from my alma mater, Harvard’s Kennedy School.

I saw Ms. Judd on TV as part of the book tour for her new autobiography, All That Is Bitter and Sweet. Judd shares her journey though awful memories of repeated sexual victimization. I become breathless with fury to learn that her pleas for help from the adults in her life were ignored.

One of the most difficult things a child victim can do is speak out. It is an act requiring bravery beyond imagination. The majority of perpetrators are known to or part of the family and the child knows at some level that relationships will forever be altered. Almost universally, victims feel as if they are to blame for some aspect of the abuse. These are among the huge emotional barriers a child must cross to seek help. It seems cruel beyond words to imagine a child taking that leap of faith only to find nothing on the other side.

Decades after child protective services became a routine part of public service in our country, after every state passed laws requiring people to report abuse, we are STILL living in a world where children have salt rubbed into their wounds of abuse by adults who look the other way.

I recall going into a school decades ago to interview a young girl who had called the sex-abuse helpline that I staffed. When the school secretary heard the name of the child we were looking for, her response was to ask if this was because of what her uncle had been doing to her. I could not then, and cannot now comprehend the cruelty of an adult sending a child home from school each day knowing she faced sexual assault.

Ashley Judd said that she learned an important lesson; to give the shame back to the abuser. I say shame on every adult who sees a child in pain and turns a blind eye.

Things are a little better now than they were all those years ago when I walked into that school; many schools do a great job helping their personnel know the proper response when they believe a child is a victim. I had hoped by now that we could spend Child Abuse Prevention Month focused on REAL prevention, like supporting community norms that do not tolerate the sexualizing of children, or ensuring that parents have access to good information about how to teach their children about healthy sexuality and keeping lines of communication wide open, or promoting evidenced based prevention strategies.

But if you know a child bearing the pain of abuse, honor Child Abuse Prevention Month by helping him or her get help. And then support efforts in your community for real prevention programs.

Real Prevention………

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? Every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, and we all have a really short attention span. Child abuse and neglect seem to be under the radar right now. We can all be thankful  when we have a week or month  without reports of  tragic deaths or damning reports of bad decisions by  public agencies.   But lately, not a week goes by that another person in the spotlight reveals a childhood histort of sexual abuse —  movies stars, CNN reporters,  sports heroes — .  Thier honesty reveals that no one is immune; thank goodness for thier courage to make this  issue public.  I have an instinctual response to scream as loud as I can every year as April approaches to remind every single person that  children are abused and violated daily, and less than 1/3 ever come to the attention of authorities, fewer yet get the help they need.

I capped more than two decades in public human services and child welfare work by spending six years as the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America (http:// www.preventchildabuse.org). I found amazing volunteers, professionals, philanthropists and public officials throughout our state who really believe in building stronger families and communities.

I left PCA-NJ  to study  at Harvard’s Kennedy School learn with and from the best and the brightest in public administration. One evening, I was in the audience for a panel discussion about performance management in the public sector that featured speakers from the offices of several governors. My lesson  came not from the stage, however, but from a fellow member of the audience.

While discussing how to use performance monitoring systems in public social service agencies to manage response times to reports of child abuse and caseload sizes, a representative from a Western state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” I am a dedicated advocate for prevention and yet I found this statement to be distressing in ways that eluded words. Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard student, a  high-ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. I looked over at him and finally found the words to explain my frustration. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

I fear that  in too many communities, people acknowledge child abuse prevention month by reminding people to  report suspected cases to authorities……Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. But real prevention is measured by  a great deal more than a decrease in the number of reports to Child Protection.

Along with counting how fast a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby? And how many new parents are served by a trained family support worker to help them through those confusing and sleep-deprived first few months of parenthood? And how many parents have a job paying a living wage from an employer with family-friendly policies? And how many child-care centers have the resources to offer parenting support groups? And how many schools understand the meaning of supporting a healthy sexual climate for their students and staff?  And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Here’s my basic metric for government: Is every child attached to at least one adult who has available all the resources it takes to raise a healthy, productive member of society?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect. From the cost of operating the child protection services in each state  to crowding our special-education programs and juvenile justice systems with victims, the maltreatment of our children brings immense human suffering and public costs. The resulting failed adult relationships, poor parenting skills and diminished aspirations caused by irreparable injury to vulnerable little egos are not limited to the low-income families more likely to come into contact with the public systems. We all suffer when families and communities fail their children.

Who is going to show that they  know the difference between fireproofing a home and dispatching a ladder truck? This April when we hear about Child Abuse Prevention Month,  in memory of martyred children named Faheem, Nixmarie, Jessica Lauren, Bill Z  and so many others, let’s think about also counting and doing the things that can make a difference;  supporting families and  strengthening communities.  Preventing the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of all children is a worthy goal — what do you need to do your part?

Parenting the on-line teen

Anyone see the Today Show this morning (3-8-11) ?  Two experts joined Matt Lauer to debate the pro’s and con’s of parents ‘spying’ on their teens internet activities.  Is it an act of dishonesty between the parent and the child or a prudent safety measure?  Any parent can imagine the indignant scream of a 14 year old caught in a racy IM chat, or the sound of a foot-stomping, door-slamming 15 year old confronted about visits to a XXXX-rated site.  Parents hate that. Too bad.  I come down squarely on the side believing that it is a parents responsibility to know where their kid is hanging out and with whom they are communicating.

Parents can’t forget that the adolescent brain is still under construction, particularly in the areas relating to taking risk.  Dr. David Walsh does a great job in his books explaining the details. As parents, we can’t let ourselves be fooled by the fact that our kids look like almost-adults, almost doesn’t count here.  While they seem so much more grown-up than the baby -faced toddler we used to cuddle, they have not yet grown all of the tools necessary to exercise really, really good judgment.

But there is a big difference between being a responsible parent and being dishonest.  Let your child know that you have installed tracking software, or that you have changed your internet setting so that only you can clear the browser cache, or whatever technical tool you choose to monitor on-line activities. And when they’re through screaming and stomping, talk about using seatbelts.  When they buckle up as they get in the car, you don’t take it as an insult to your driving….. it’s just what we do in case today is the one in a million where something goes very wrong.

And the odds of something going wrong for an adolescent on-line are WAY higher than one in a million.  A report commissioned by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children found that 1 in 7 youth on-line  were exposed to unwanted sexual solicitations; one is eleven reported sexual harassment and — are you ready for the big number?    ONE IN THREE reported unwanted exposure to sexual material! Need proof? See the full report at http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC167.pdf .

So let them stomp and slam for a moment or two — after all, demonstrating the need to be independent from parents is also developmentally normal for an adolescent. But hold your ground. Kids need parental support in the on-line world as much as they need a seatbelt in a car.