30 October 2013

Enough Abuse Campaign Setting Standards In Child Sexual Abuse Prevention

By Jetta Bernier

A recent Ms. Foundation report properly described child sexual abuse as “one of the most pressing issues of our times.” This was not an overstatement. Every year, 35 million adults come into contact with more than 70 million children in youth-serving organizations (YSOs) across the country; over 50 million children attend our public and private schools. These settings are designed to provide children with guidance and opportunities for learning and personal growth. However, they can also unwillingly provide the "cover" and access to children and teens that sexual abusers and exploiters require. Consider the sobering facts from a U.S. Department of Education report which indicates 7 percent, or 3.5 million school children, report having had physical sexual contact from an adult in their school, most commonly a teacher or coach. When non-touching sexual offenses were included, the figure rose to 4.5 million. Clearly, without a comprehensive strategy to prevent sexual abuse, youth organizations and schools will not succeed in their obligation to protect our children from this insidious threat.

As a result of national attention generated by the Penn State scandal, many institutions are recognizing the pressing need to develop more effective prevention strategies to combat the problem. In a survey conducted by MassKids with small to mid-sized YSOs, however, most reveal they don't know where to begin to strengthen their policies to prevent abuse and don't have the resources to hire risk management consultants to guide them.

A capacity building grant from the Ms. Foundation has supported the Enough Abuse Campaign’s efforts to address this identified gap. Through our "GateKeepers for Kids" program, we are educating school and youth-serving leaders about the basics they need to strengthen child safety policies and practices. We have produced a practical 12-page guide detailing the latest training, screening and reporting strategies in the field; a comprehensive assessment tool to help an organization identify its strengths and vulnerabilities; an online bank of policies, video tools and resources; and fact sheets that include steps to develop a code of conduct so that inappropriate behaviors can be identified early before they escalate to abuse, to match an organization's policy to its unique mission and clients, and to modify physical spaces to reduce opportunities for sexual abuse to occur.

To spur prevention efforts further, the Enough Abuse Campaign is convening a first-of-its-kind Prevention Summit on November 19th near Boston to help jumpstart the effort to set a new standard for child safety among school and YSO leaders, advocates, policymakers and funders. National and state leaders will provide participants with: an understanding of the scope of the problem; the latest, practical tools they need to review and improve their policies; specific skill-building around screening, reporting, modifying physical spaces, dealing with disclosures from staff and children, and handling alleged abusers in ways that support both accountability and compassion. The Learning Community we plan to organize post-summit will provide an ongoing vehicle for the exchange of prevention ideas and strategies far beyond the event itself, including the mobilization of new advocates pushing for legislative changes aimed at preventing child sexual abuse.

Taken collectively, we believe these efforts will help generate a new culture of safety and accountability within organizations whose mission is to ensure the right of every child to a healthy and safe childhood – one free from sexual abuse and its devastating effects.

For more information about summit speakers and session topics, and to register, please visit www.enoughabuse.org.

Jetta Bernier is executive director of MassKids and directs its Enough Abuse Campaign. To learn more visit www.masskids.org.

18 October 2013

Blame, Inappropriately Directed

The heinous Maryville, Mo., rape case has reignited cultural tendencies toward victim-blaming.

Emily Yoffe, of Slate, admonished college women to stop getting drunk, citing a study showing that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. One could reasonably assume that an equal or greater percentage of campus sexual assaults also involve men. Men are more likely rapists than women so, by Yoffe’s reasoning, women would be wise to avoid interactions with men.

But that’s not what she – or anyone else – is suggesting. Everyone knows that men, specifically, are not the problem any more than a few shots of PatrĂ³n are the problem.

How do we eliminate rape and rape culture? Certainly not by blaming victims or putting the onus on women to protect themselves.

It’s hard work changing a culture that values hyper-masculinity and treats women and girls as sexual property. It’s not so neat and simple as telling women to stop drinking, stop going out late at night, stop wearing short skirts. It takes courage to demand community accountability, and to change the cultural conditions that create rapists.

Media outlets may lack that courage, but the Ms. Foundation for Women stands strong in its belief that violence against girls and women can be made a rarity, rather than a shameful reality.

The first step requires treating rape survivors with dignity and respect rather than second-guessing victims' decisions surrounding their assaults.

Instead of “What did she expect to happen at one in the morning after sneaking out?” (as Fox News guest Joseph DiBenedetto asked about one of the Maryville victims), we should be questioning the motives of the perpetrators: “Didn’t they think twice about picking up girls late at night and sneaking them in through a window? Didn’t the boys know that alcohol would lower their inhibitions and cloud their judgment?”

And, especially, in reference to the prosecutor reopening the case: “What did the boys expect to happen when they raped these girls?”

Those are the questions no one is asking.

02 October 2013

Government Shutdown Harming Women Most In Need

As is often the case, the people most negatively impacted by governmental failures are the ones who can least afford the setback. The current government shutdown is no exception.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is considered “non-essential,” allowing it to be shut down, effective yesterday. Nearly 9 million low-income women and their children rely on this program for food, nutritional information and health care referrals. (Since when is food “non-essential” to survival?) That includes breastfeeding support and infant formula, including specialized formula for children with illnesses or allergies, which isn’t readily available elsewhere.

Fifty-three percent of U.S. infants rely on WIC to meet their full nutritional needs. With mothers most often assuming primary parenting responsibilities, this leaves millions of women without options. Utah’s WIC program was the first to shut down yesterday, sacrificing 65,000 residents in need of nutrition assistance. While states will be permitted to tap into additional funding that could sustain them through October, future funding remains uncertain.

Additionally, more than 20 Head Start programs have already been shut down, with more expected if the shutdown drags on. Again, this primarily devastates women, not only with the loss of educational and other services for their children, but also with the last-minute need for child care in the absence of a caregiver.

It’s not just low-income women who will feel the pinch.  Federally funded domestic violence shelters may be at risk of losing reimbursement for their services, along with youth-serving organizations and state coalitions that receive federal sexual assault prevention funds.

While Republicans and Democrats play a dangerous game of chicken, it’s the most vulnerable women who suffer.