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Monday, December 15, 2014

Tips for Talking about Prevention over the Holidays

It’s the holiday season. Let’s talk prevention! Here are three specific suggestions for making child sexual abuse prevention a conversation topic with friends and family during your holiday.Body-Safety Rules Poster
  • Invite friends and family into a conversation about keeping kids safe from child sexual abuse. Each person has his or her own communication style, but here are a couple of ice-breakers to consider:
    • Let people know you went to a Parenting Safe Children workshop and why you’ve decided to invite all of the adults in your child’s life onto your prevention team.
    • Hang your body safety-rules poster in a prominent location, like the Stiever Family poster to the right, and let your family members and friends know about the rules and why they are important.
    • Consider giving a friend or family member Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, with a personal inscription about why it’s important to you.
    • Bring up body safety just as you would any other safety topic – e.g. “I’m so glad you got a car seat with all those safety components. Can I tell you about our latest safety measure?”
You probably have other ideas for, and success stories about, inviting people onto your prevention team. Please share them on Facebook so we can all learn together.
  • As children go off to play, remind both the children and the adults about your family’s four body-safety practices:
    • Everyone plays with their clothes on.
    • No one touches private parts.
    • We don’t keep secrets.
    • If you feel unsafe in any way, come tell a trusted adult.
By communicating these safety practices in front of other adults, you are modeling prevention and opening the door for conversation.
  • The holidays are a time of greetings and affection, so it’s particularly important to remember that children and teens are safer when they get to choose when and with whom to show affection. If a family member or friend wants to greet your child with a hug or kiss, and your child does not want to, then you are being presented with a wonderful teachable moment and an opportunity to stand up for your child.
Grandma: “Oh, it’s so good to see you. Give grandma a hug.”
Mom or Dad: “I know you’re a hugger Mom, but we’ve taught Ben that he gets to choose when he shows affection and it looks like he doesn’t want to hug right now.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Courage to Speak Up for Kids

Parents frequently tell me how hard it is to talk with other adults about body safety and prevention, yet speaking up IS the foundation for keeping kids safe from sexual abuse. Genevieve, a Colorado mom, offers these words of encouragement:
“When I attended Feather’s Parenting Safe Children workshop, the idea of screening caregivers, coaches, teachers, etc. around sexual abuse was very intimidating. My husband and I promised ourselves, however, that no matter how uncomfortable it was, we were going to talk with everyone about our daughter’s body safety.

The first time I screened a provider I was very anxious. My heart was pounding and I was on the verge of tears because I was so scared that the person was going to look at me like I had two heads and treat me like I was a ‘problem.’

I’m happy to say, this was not at all the case. While I was told in one instance that I was the first parent to ask these questions, the provider was appreciative and thorough. This made me feel safe about leaving my daughter with her.

Next I hired two babysitters. I had gained confidence by this point. The two babysitters who I hired, and still work with today, were extremely professional during my screening process (I used the Parenting Safe Children Nanny Packet) including criminal background checks, thorough reference checks, an interview and trial meeting with my daughter, a discussion about body safety, and a babysitting contract that included body safety.”
To all the parents out there who feel the way I did, it gets easier and it feels really good to know that I have spoken up for my child in this way.”
On behalf of Parenting Safe Children, thank you to all of the parents and professionals who are speaking up for children. As you’ve probably heard me ask, “Are you willing to feel uncomfortable so kids don’t have to?”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Building an Off-Limits School

As you’ve heard me say before, if you ask just one question of your child’s school, day care, sports program or place of faith, ask “What policies are in place to prevent child sexual abuse?” But don’t stop there: Ask to see the policies and also inquire about monitoring.

Courtesy of Treasureland Preschool, here is one example of what a Staff Handbook ought to include. At this pre-school, staff must sign off on the policies annually and attend a workshop. Parents also receive a copy.

  1. Treasureland Preschool adheres to a “no secrets” rule. Staff members should never ask children to keep a secret from any person. 
  2. Treasureland staff respect toilet-trained children’s privacy regarding toileting but monitor the bathroom area to prevent inappropriate touching of one child by another child.
    • Diaper changing is conducted in open areas in the classrooms.
    • During toileting/diapering, adults will use anatomically correct terminology.
  3. Treasureland staff is trained on appropriate and inappropriate touching of children.
Appropriate Touch
  • Child initiates hug/side hugs
  • High fives/fist bumps
  • Holding hands when appropriate (walking uneven ground, crossing street)
  • Comforting a child when hurt or upset
  • Physical contact should always occur in public, never in private
Inappropriate Touch 
  • Requesting or pressuring children to give hugs
  • Kissing children
  • Sitting children on an adult’s lap
  • Tickling
  • Patting buttocks, massaging shoulders/backs
  • Rubbing legs
  • Repeatedly brushing against a child’s body
Thank you to Treasureland Preschool in Denver and all of the organizations that are taking the time to implement policies, train staff, and monitor practices that keep children safe from sexual abuse.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Five Halloween Safety Tips

As you gear up for Halloween, remember that child sexual abuse is usually committed by someone the child knows and trusts – not by a stranger. Thus Halloween is yet another opportunity to invite other parents and caregivers onto your prevention team and a good time to reinforce your child’s body-safety rules.

Here are five quick tips:

Halloween Tips
  1. For older kids, find out exactly with whom they are going out trick-or-treating and stay in close communication via text or voice, with an agreed upon arrival time back home.
  2. If your child is going to a Halloween party, find out who is supervising, and discuss your child’s body-safety rules with those adults.
  3. Accompany younger children and children of mixed ages on the trick-or-treat route. Walk younger children to the door.
  4. Review your child’s body-safety rules.
  5. Remind children that you are available to come pick up them up and that you will never be mad if your child breaks a body-safety rule.
Have a fun safe Halloween!

Inviting School and Daycare Administrators onto Your Prevention Team

Woman on Phone with Administrator
Your children have been back at school and/or day care for a couple of months now. If you have not already done so, this is a great time to speak to school personnel about how they are keeping your child safe.

If you ask just one question, this is what I recommend:

What policies are in place to prevent child sexual abuse?

Look for policies that address:

  • Adults spending time alone with children (2 adults to 1 child).
  • Appropriate and inappropriate touch of children by adults.
  • Appropriate and inappropriate touch of children by other children.
  • Diapering, toileting, showering, and changing clothes.
In-home daycare providers should also have specific policies about how non-staff family members interact with children.   

Policies, however, aren’t enough, so you also might ask how practices are monitored. As you are talking with the director, look for open and forthcoming communication.

Remember, it is completely appropriate to ask administrators about their child sexual abuse prevention policies. Every school and day care facility ought to have these in place, but many still do not. If your school or day care does not have specific policies in place, ask about plans to do so and then make whatever decision you feel good making on behalf of your child, based on the response.

For a complete set of questions to ask administrators and teachers, print out a free copy of the Parenting Safe Children School Packet.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Offenders Want You to Know

During the summer of 2014, I met with six groups of people who have sexually abused children: Four groups of men who, as part of their probation, attend a treatment group; one group of female offenders in their treatment program; and then one group of men in prison.

I participated in these offender groups with the sole purpose of better understanding this crime so I can better equip parents and professionals to prevent it.

Child Sexual Abuse PreventionNearly all of the men and women were glad to have me participate because they don’t want to offend again and they want you to know how to keep children safe and to speak up on children’s behalf every chance you get.

We can be anyone.
Contrary to common perception, people who sexually abuse children are not dirty old men. They are people we love and trust, who are well-known to you and your children.

The groups in which I participated included fathers and mothers, teachers and business people, working class and middle class, and people of varying ethnic backgrounds and ages. What they all shared in common, however, is that they knew the child or teen they abused, and had access, privacy, and control.

Some, but not all, had been sexually abused themselves as children, and some started abusing children when they were teens.

Lesson: People who sexually abuse children are already in our lives. They have our child’s love and trust, which is why it’s so important to find the courage to invite loved ones and other caregivers onto your prevention team.

We abuse children because we feel powerless.
Nearly all of the people I met are a so-called “situational” abusers, which means they have sexual relationships with adults, but in specific situations turn to children, usually to reduce negative feelings (e.g., anxiety, guilt, depression, loneliness, lack of self-worth) or to experience power and control. In their words,

“My life was a mess; I was pent up with sadness and I needed to feel needed. Things weren’t going well with my wife. I guess I turned to kids to satisfy my emotional and physical needs.”
“I was lonely and isolated, and started spending more and more time online where I felt anonymous and invincible. On the one hand, I knew it was wrong to look at child porn, but on the other hand, I told myself it wasn’t hurting anyone.”
Another individual made a connection between his childhood and why he sexually abused children:
“I felt terrible about myself and was looking for the attention I never really got as a child. I saw pain in some kids that reminded me of how I felt unloved. I wanted to heal their pain so I took the role of protector, but then I manipulated them to get my needs met.”
Lesson: Just because someone’s life is “a mess” does not mean that person is going to sexually abuse a child, but if you have a family member or caregiver in your child’s life who is wrought with difficulties and seems to lack empathy, 1) Reach out and offer support; and 2) Pay attention to, and intervene in, behaviors that make you uncomfortable.

Pay attention to our behaviors.
People who sexually abuse children methodically groom to gain access—and then compliance.

“The kids I abused were all seeking love. I would shower the child with gifts, special treatment and attention, and painstakingly move toward the moment when I could gain compliance and cross the line.”
In some instances, the parent is also being groomed through a level of generosity that is probably too good to be true – free babysitting, financial support, and perhaps an excessive willingness to “help out.”

There is good news. With knowledge, you can recognize grooming behaviors and with courage, you can speak up.

Lesson: Pay attention to these kinds of behaviors and patterns: favoring children, special treatment, allowing kids to break rules, gift-giving, lots of attention, a listening ear, taking a child’s side, manipulation, introducing kids to sexual material, or talking about sex (i.e., sexualizing the relationship).

We’re really good at what we do, so you really need to speak up.

In each of the groups I attended, I asked the participants, “If parents had talked with you about body-safety rules and boundaries in their relationship with you, would that have deterred you?” The answer was unequivocally, “Yes!” For instance, one person said,

“Parents have to pay attention to the people who are spending time with their children. If someone had talked to me about boundaries, I wouldn’t have offended my relative.”
People who sexually abuse children tend to run in a different direction if they see that the parent is involved and the child is educated. In the words of one man,

“If I drive up to a bank and see cop cars, I'm going to move on. I'll go down the street and rob a different bank.”
Another man said, “Don’t argue in front of your kids because that’s an in for me.” He’s referring to the fact that people who abuse children are looking for ways to become a child’s confidant.

Parents tell me it’s so much harder to speak up to the people they know, but this individual makes it very clear that you have to be willing to speak up to friends and family members if you’re going to prevent child sexual abuse:

“If you see someone, even a family member, spending a lot of time with your child instead of his or her own peers, ask why. Parents would have no problem interrupting a stranger with their child, but they are uncomfortable asking 'Uncle Joe'.”
By not bringing ‘Uncle Joe’ onto your prevention team, your child is vulnerable. Likewise, the offenders I met encouraged parents to be engaged with their children.
“Teach parents to be assertive. Be open, talk with and listen to your kids. If you see changes in their patterns or behaviors, ask questions.”
If you’re still wondering why it’s important to build prevention teams with everyone who interacts with your child, I leave you with these words,
“We’re really good at what we do, so do whatever you have to, to prevent me from crossing your barriers.”
I will address the unique dynamics around women who sexually abuse children in a future Parenting Safe Children blog post.

For more information about building prevention teams with the people in your life, attend a Parenting Safe Children workshop today.

In Their Own Words – Offenders Speak about Grooming

From time to time, I attend treatment groups for men and women who have sexually abused children so that I can better understand this crime and how to prevent it. 

Many of the offenders I met this summer told me how important it is to teach adults how child sexual abusers go about gaining access to and compliance from children. In the words of one man,
“We’re really good at what we do, so you have to keep educating parents so they understand how we do what we do.”
Child sexual abusers need three things to sexually abuse a child: privacy, authority, and control. Because these ingredients must be present, the sexual abuser is usually someone who is known to the child, such as a family member or caregiver. 

“Grooming” is the methodical process of getting a child to eventually comply with sexual requests, either through attention or threat. First, a person who sexually abuses develops or has a special friendship with a child and gives the child a lot of love and attention, perhaps filling a void if the child doesn’t feel like he or she is getting enough attention elsewhere. In the words of offenders I met this summer,
Child sexual abuse prevention  “The child I abused had parents who were uninvolved; she was lonely.”
  “The children I sexually abused were seeking love and attention.”
  “The child I abused had very strict parents and was always angry at her parents.”
  “The kids I sexually abused didn’t know how to make friends.”
  “She was a perfect victim. She did not get along with her mom.”
Giving time, attention, and gifts are ways to emotionally seduce a child, so the child feels indebted. Once the abuser establishes an emotional bond with the child, then the relationship becomes sexual.
“I let her watch cartoons, bought her candy and toys. I took my time and made her feel super special.”
Physical contact usually begins in nonsexual ways (e.g., tickling, cuddling, wrestling), but over time leads to sexual contact.
“I took it very slowly. Before I would ever touch a child, I would get the child to believe that the touching was her own idea.”
Sexual abuse requires secrecy. As part of the grooming process, some abusers “train” children by asking them to keep innocent secrets. (e.g., “I’m so glad we shared an extra bowl of ice cream for dessert. Don’t tell your parents; this is our little secret. Okay?”)

Once the abuse happens, asking a child to keep secrets about sexual contact may involve threats. One father I spoke with said,
“I threatened her. I told her if she told anyone about this, I’d be arrested and our family would fall apart.”
From the women’s treatment group, I noted these two comments about the power of secrets:
 “I kept his secrets and he kept ours.”
 “I was a master of secrets and believed that I’d never get caught.”
This is exactly why I talk about the difference between secrets and surprises in the Parenting Safe Children Workshop. Asking children to keep even seemingly innocent secrets (e.g., “Let’s not tell Mommy about the cookie we had before dinner.”) can make it harder for children to tell should a groomer be training the child in secret-keeping.

Lesson: 1) Sexual touching is never a child’s fault. 2) Put sexual abuse on your radar just like seat belts and car seats are safety priorities. Our children need us to make child sexual abuse prevention a priority. They deserve nothing less.

For more information about grooming and how to recognize it, see Off Limits, or attend a Parenting Safe Children workshop.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Getting Adults to Speak up for Kids

April is Child Abuse Prevention month and I’ve been reflecting on what it will take to change the cultural norm of silence that allows child sexual abuse to thrive in our communities. I’d like your help.

Body-Safety Rules Are Not Enough
Parenting Safe Children workshop participants tell me how empowered and secure they feel after teaching their kids body-safety rules. There are many benefits to parents and kids talking about body safety, but when we teach children body-safety rules without screening caregivers, we put the responsibility for safety on children and we rest on a false sense of security.

Parenting Safe Children – and the entire prevention community – recognizes that teaching children body-safety rules is important, but it’s not enough, which is exactly why body safety is only one component of the Parenting Safe Children workshop.

Courageous Conversations Tip #6
Getting Adults to Speak Up
The real work is about getting adults to speak up: It’s about getting up the nerve to invite another parent onto your prevention team; it’s initiating conversations about sexual abuse prevention and body safety with teachers, nannies, coaches, counselors, tutors, and program leaders; it’s about administrators calling out inappropriate behaviors; and it’s about listening to that weird feeling in your gut when you see a potentially concerning behavior.

Put simply, child sexual abuse prevention, first and foremost, is about adults having the courage to speak up.

There are lots of reasons people don’t speak-up. Some of you have told me it’s not always clear whether a particular situation warrants attention. Others have said they don’t believe it’s their “business” to speak up, much less intervene. Most commonly, however, you tell me you’re not sure what to say, or that you’re worried about not having ample proof and being wrong.

From Accusation to Conversation
No one wants to falsely accuse another person for anything, much less for child sexual abuse, but this isn’t about accusing someone; it’s about a conversation – about changing the norms such that we all are willing to talk openly about body safety and prevention policies in the interest of keeping children safe.

Child sexual abuse thrives in a culture of silence and opportunity. By not speaking up, we actually leave our children vulnerable. In fact, offenders count on our discomfort and silence. On the contrary, when adults are willing to openly talk about child sexual abuse and its prevention, opportunity for abuse is minimized. Imagine a summer camp where every parent inquired about child sexual abuse prevention policies and every counselor had gone through child abuse prevention training. Imagine a primary school where every parent asked the administration about its prevention policies and every parent talked with their child’s teacher about body safety. When adults speak up, we are building communities that are off limits to child sexual abusers.

Courageous Conversations
I believe it will take nothing less than courageous conversations day in and day out to obliterate this culture of silence that allows our children to be sexually exploited, usually by someone the child knows and trusts. If adults are uncomfortable talking to caregivers about body safety, how can we possibly expect a child, even with body-safety rules, to speak up in a difficult situation? It’s just not fair to ask children to do our work.

In honor of Child Abuse Prevention month and the survivors among us, let’s rededicate ourselves to speaking up and engaging in courageous conversations. I will support you by posting a daily courageous conversation tip on Facebook during the month of April and facilitating a robust discussion every day about when and how to speak up. Please join this discussion and share the tips with all of your friends. Start Now!

Together, we can end child sexual abuse in our community! 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

To Monitor, or Not?

In the Parenting Safe Children workshop, I talk about the importance of teaching your children body-safety rules and the equal importance of screening caregivers. Here are some examples of applying screening principles around online safety:

  • Screen the sites your children spend time on – and set limits.
  • Screen friend lists periodically, just as you would inquire about who your child is spending time with in the outside world.
  • Review personal information to make sure that your child’s profile and photos on social networking sites are appropriate. (Some parents require that their child friend a parent as a condition of social media use, so the parent can watch for safe use.)
Then it gets a little trickier, with a host of personal privacy decisions. Do you check your child’s text messages? Do you install parental control software to filter sites or obtain usage reports? These decisions are personal and will vary by family, but please remember two things:

  1. Whatever choice you make about filtering programs, no software can take the place of an actively involved parent; and
  2. If you are concerned or worried that your child ‘s safety is being comprised, then it is no longer a matter of privacy, but rather one of safety. If your child won’t talk with you, do what you need to do to protect your child, even if it means, for instance, checking his or her text messages.

If and how are you monitoring your child's online activities? 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Your Online Safety Plan

While there are unique safety challenges specific to each form of technology, service, and app, here are ten general practices to support online safety.
  1. Keep your computer or tablet in a high-traffic area – e.g., the kitchen or family room.
  2. Set limits regarding the sites your kids are allowed to visit, and for how long.
  3. Spend time with your children online and invite them to show you sites and activities they enjoy, including chat rooms and social networking.
  4. Reinforce body-safety and cyber-safety rules:
    • “It’s not okay for other people (kids, teens or adults) to show you pictures or movies of naked people. If you see a photo of a naked person on the computer, please come tell me.”
    • “If you have an interaction online or by phone that makes you feel uncomfortable, please tell me or another trusted adult.”
    • “If someone tries to contact you by computer or phone who you don’t know, please come tell me or another trusted adult.”
    • “Keep your personal information private with your family (birth date, phone #, address, passwords).”
  5. Get to know online friends just like you would want to know the people your children hang out with face-to-face.
  6. Talk with your children and teens about sex and sexuality.
  7. Resist the urge to purchase external web cams.
  8. Set clear rules for social networking – e.g., friending Mom or Dad as a condition and only friending people you know.
  9. Ask your child to sign a “safe use” agreement. (Family Online Safety Agreement.)
  10. Do not hesitate to revoke privileges if the “Safe Use” agreement is broken.
The more you talk with your children about body safety, online safety, sex and sexuality, the more likely your children will seek you out if they have questions or find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Continually remind children and teens that you have a “no-secrets” home, and that there is nothing they can say or do to make you not love them.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Just the Facts, Folks – Online Abuse and How it Happens

[Part 1 in a 3-part series about Keeping Kids Safe Online.]

According to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, one in five children (ages 10-17) has been sexually solicited online and nearly 60% of teens have received an email or Instant Message from a stranger—and half have responded back.

For abuse to take place, online predators need access to and privacy with vulnerable children and teens.

95% of youth (ages 12-17) use social networking sites, chat rooms, or blogs[1], giving online predators tremendous access to minors. Even children under five are going online at least once a week.[2]

With privacy and anonymity, predators engage youth across multiple media, from chat rooms to gaming sites to text. In fact, according to one survey, 89% of sexual solicitations targeting youth were made in chat rooms or through Instant Message[3].

Gaming also allows for private interactions. 97% of teens (ages 12-17) play online games and 27% of them game with people they first meet on online.[4]
While researchers are still learning about the nuances of online grooming behavior, solicitation may include direct requests for chat, information, sexual activity, in-person meeting, or exposure to sexual materials.
Based on research by the leading experts in child sexual abuse prevention, predators seek youth with a history of sexual or physical abuse; who post sexually provocative photos or videos; who talk about sex online with people they do not know; and/or who feel alienated or alone. Boys who are gay or who question their sexual orientation are also vulnerable if they seek out information and connection online.[5]
Predators specifically look for kids who engage in four risky online behaviors[6], all of which are more common than we’d like to think:
  • Communicating with unknown people
  • Sharing personal information with unknown people (More than half of all teens have given out personal info online to someone they don’t know, including photos and physical descriptions.)[7]
  • Talking about sex online
  • Meeting online friends in the outside world
Even youth who are not engaging in risky behaviors can be vulnerable in the “Wild West” of the online world. For instance, 70% of kids (ages 8-18) have encountered pornography online accidently, sometimes by entering a seemingly benign search term as part of a homework assignment.[8]

Equipped with the facts, now it's time to put together an online safety plan. Stay tuned for part two in this series.
1. Lenhart A., Nov 2013.
2. Lenhart A. Social media and young adults. Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2010.
4. Lenhart A. Teens, video games, and civics. Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008.
5. Wolak J, Finkelhor D, Mitchell K, Ybarra M. Online “predators” and their victims: myths, realities, and implications for prevention and treatment. American Psychologist, 2008; 63, 111-128.
6. Mitchell, K.J., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. Youth internet users at risk for the most serious online sexual solicitations. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2007; 32, 532-536.
7. Social Media and Young Adults. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Feb. 2010.
8. Generation M: media in the lives of 8-18 year olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2006.