Jessica climbed into the back seat of her mother’s SUV and burst into tears. “I am so sorry, mommy, I didn’t mean to do it!” How it was that five year old Jessica immediately disclosed the most horrendous and disgusting sexual abuse at the hands of her maternal uncle? A few hours later, I congratulated her on her being not only beautiful and smart but also courageous. Why was she different from most of the children that we evaluate in our child abuse and sexual assault center? The answer lies in the information and communication that was shared with her from the time she was old enough to understand “private parts”, “good and bad touching” and secrets. Her family had a tradition of communication, listening to their children, all the way to the end of their sentences, and providing an environment where there were no forbidden topics or secrets.
At the other end of town, seven-year-old Jacob was walking home from school with a group of his classmates. A black van pulled up to the curb and the man behind the wheel waved to him to come closer to the car. “I’ll give you five dollars to help me find my dog!” Jacob backed away from the curb and ran to the corner grocery, where the manager called the police. Jacob had been prepared by his parents to identify strangers, to stay away from cars asking directions and to never accept money or gifts of any kind from someone, even someone well known to them, without permission.
As the Director of one of the largest child abuse and sexual assault centers in the United States, I am a witness to the successes and the failures in the lives of the most vulnerable—our children. In addition to listening to the Jessica’s in my practice, the darkest hours are spent in the cold, foul basement of the coroner’s office, providing expertise in the deaths of children. For these few our inability to protect them is 100%. I am grateful that these are the exceptions. Most children are not kidnapped, raped and murdered. However, when I walk the 100 yards back from the coroner’ office to my clinic I feel overwhelmed by the abuse that may not kill the body, but steals the soul.
As a mother of three boys, I celebrate the safety and joy of their childhoods. I felt within myself the potential to become the ultimate overprotective “boogie-man” of a mother. Watching them like a hawk! Never allowing them to leave my side or sight! Suspicious of everyone! I vowed that the darkness of my career would not spill over into their childhood filling it with the constant fear of impending doom and death. Gratefully, most of our children spend their lives surrounded and protected by parents who love them and guard them with a ferocity that is awe inspiring.
However, this has been a frightening year of child abduction, sexual assault and murder. This series of chapters was written to help parents create new habits that will change how we create a protective environment for children. The goal is to acknowledge that each child is vulnerable every day, but develop skills to protect them without creating a childhood that is defined by a climate of fear and over-protection.
The idea of the “pool” is that we build fences and have laws that protect children from being around water unprotected. We do not want our children to be afraid of water, but we want them to be safe…thus the title of this series of articles.