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:// 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 .

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.

What Parents Can Learn From Bill Zellers Final Words

Bill Zeller was a brilliant graduate student who could unwrap the mysteries of the digital world but was unable to find comfort and joy among people. The words of his poignant suicide note, in which he discussed his childhood rape by an unnamed man, will be parsed by many looking for an answer, a perpetrator, or a moral. Most of us will be tempted to point the finger at his parents, therapists or neighbors, and leave it at that.

But there is a lesson in Bill Zeller’s death even for the most loving and involved parent.

Parents play a critical role in ensuring their child’s sexual health and safety and are remarkably diverse in their ability to do so. Imagine a bell shaped curve; on one end of the curve are parents responsible for sexual abuse and the neglect of sexual pain described by Zeller.  On the other end we find dead silence around sexuality. Parents and caretakers of children must find their place in the center.

Children need loving, trusted adults to provide age-appropriate knowledge and language about every part of their body; silence and ignorance about sex are among the weapons used by molesters to coerce child victims into compliance. In his suicide note, Zeller described his parents as fundamentalists and it’s clear that he didn’t trust them (he wrote in his note that he hated them). But parents of all religions and belief systems  can and must protect their children with knowledge, language and comfort. All children deserve to live in a community where adults are aware of the signs of sexual abuse and know the resources available to a child victim and his family.

The trust of your child, their willingness to speak with you about what’s important to him or her, is one of a parent’s greatest assets in protecting their children against the hopelessness and pain that so many children experience and that drove Bill Zeller to take his life.

So Why Don’t We Talk?

Parents tell me that they just wouldn’t know where to start if they wanted to have a conversation about sex abuse. If they’ve never had a conversation with their child about sex, they don’t want their first one to be about molesters. Many parents just don’t want to think of sex and their child at the same time in any way at all.

Parents can fool themselves into thinking things will be fine. Some parents will wait until their kids get to school and hope their district provides a good child safety program. Maybe the scouts will have a special program, or the Sunday school. But programs provided by strangers discussing concepts that may be completely foreign to your child can’t possibly have the same effect as a loving dialog; there is no substitute for a permanently open line of communication with parents. Parents delay opening up that line when they’re scared that they won’t be able to handle what comes in. Parents need strategies and tactics to help reach and teach their child.

The Courage to Be Uncomfortable

It can certainly be uncomfortable to look closely at our own thoughts and feeling about sexuality and sex abuse. Along with the reality that sexual issues are shrouded in secrecy, many people enter adulthood with painful memories of their own.  In every community people have been scarred through unreported assault from an adult, sexually oriented bullying, sexually explicit and violent language, or date rape. Even without these negative experiences coloring our own perspective, talking to a child about sexuality can be tough.

But we need the courage to be uncomfortable. Keeping our kids sexually safe and healthy requires an extraordinarily brave commitment to self-awareness and healthy family intimacy.

I don’t want to join the on-line chorus of people trying to guess who did what to Bill Zeller. Whatever it was destroyed his spirit and ultimately cost him his life. A friend confided that Zeller’s story was his story and implored me to use my voice as an experienced professional to see if we could make anything decent come from this tragedy.  Adults are responsible for keeping children safe and in memory of Bill Zeller, I implore them to learn how. In that spirit I issue this call to action to all parents to find their place in the middle of the continuum; to find the courage to face their discomfort, the resources they need to maintain the sexual health and safety of their children and the consciousness to recognize a child bearing the scars left to strangle the spirit of Bill Zeller.

May he finally find peace.

Helpful Resources:

Read Zellers final words at

The Sex Information and Education Council of the US

The American Academy of Pediatrics;108/2/498

Prevent Child Abuse America

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is a 30-year veteran of child welfare and youth serving programs. She is committed to bringing the best possible information to parents to help them raise safe, healthy, happy kids.  

This post is based on a column that first appeared in the Princeton Packet 2-8-11