September is a busy time for families, with children returning to school and parents resuming school-year routines. If you have not already had a chance to screen your child’s school, preschool, daycare, or activity program, this is a great time to do so. And to make it easier for you, this issue of the Parenting Safe Children newsletter includes a free Back to School Screening Packet. Additionally, I thought it would be helpful to share a portrait of a school – and its prevention policies and practices – so you know what to look for as you tour a building, talk with staff and administrators, and observe your child at work and play.
Remember, it’s never too late to have conversations about sexual abuse prevention with the people in whose care you entrust your children. Here’s to a safe and healthy school year!
Setting the Scene
For this off-limits story, we spoke with Nancy James, executive director of Montessori Academy of Colorado. The school, which operates year-round, has a population of 193 students (ages two months to six years) and 60 staff members. From the moment you walk through the school’s front door, Nancy makes it known that MAC is focused on minimizing the risk of child sexual abuse. “Welcome, Montessori is about celebrating children and supporting a child’s independence—and we are a body-safe school.”
The Physical Layout
Walking through the school, you easily see what is happening in the 14 classrooms, because all of the doors have windows. You notice that the bathrooms have small toilets and offer partial privacy with half doors. This allows older children to take care of their own toileting, yet easily ask for help if needed. Nancy explains her philosophy and practice:
“We help kids be more and more independent. For instance, if a child needs a new pair of underwear, he gets it himself. If kids put underwear on backward, then so be it. With toddlers, we change them standing up, and we talk about their body parts and encourage them to help. This way it’s happening with them, not to them.”
Staff even introduce infants to body safety during diaper changes and use the anatomically correct names for private parts:
“Shannon, you have a wet diaper. I’m going to change you now, put you on the table, take off your pants, and pull off your diaper. Now I’m going to clean your vagina.” Bottom line, says Nancy, “We never touch children until we tell them how, where and why we are going to touch them.”
To facilitate good communication with parents, the school also completes a daily form, for each child, that documents which staff member was involved in toileting, eating and napping—and when. For instance, says Nancy, “ If Maxine has an accident at 5:00 pm, the parent can talk with the teacher who was in charge at the time.”
Spending Time Alone with Children – Body-Safety Policies
Nancy is forthcoming with the school’s body-safety policies. For instance, here's a policy about spending time alone with children:
“At MAC we work to ensure that all children and staff are safe and accounted for at all times. Adults and children spend their days in groups with one another. However, there are rare instances when a staff member must be alone with a child for a short while. When a situation that requires an adult to be alone with a child occurs, all MAC staff are required to take the following steps:
Approach another adult in the group to tell them about the situation.
Identify the child that needs to leave with the adult.
Identify the reason why the child and adult are leaving the group area.
Identify the location in which the adult and child will be.
Indicate the time frame in which this activity should occur.
Take the child to take care of the situation.
Upon returning to the group, check in with the same adult to make note that the child and adult are back with the group.
If, at any time, any staff member in the MAC community feels concerned about a situation in which an adult and child were alone or feels concerned that an adult is finding too many opportunities to be alone with children, that staff member must report their concerns to the Executive Director immediately.”
It sounds good, right? But how do you know the staff are trained in body-safety practices and then held accountable?
Body-Safety Training for Staff
At MAC, you would discover that the director personally interviews all staff and poses questions about body safety and boundaries. When hired, staff participate in an orientation, which includes 20 minutes dedicated to body safety. Every year, the school hosts a Parenting Safe Children Professional In-service for all teachers and staff, new and old. In subsequent monthly meetings, teachers raise questions about body-safety issues and talk about how they are putting into practice what they learned. And Nancy goes one-step further, holding everyone accountable, by including body safety in staff performance reviews.
Educating Parents and Training Volunteers
As you’re touring the school, you watch parents, grandparents, nannies, and older siblings come onto school grounds during pick-up and drop off. Perhaps some wish to volunteer in the classroom. How are these individuals screened or involved in keeping kids safe?
It turns out MAC offers a Parenting Safe Children workshop for parents annually. This way children hear the same message at home and at school. In addition, anyone who works in the school, like interns and parent volunteers, must attend the same training and orientation as staff.
It’s looking pretty good as you tour this school, but what does your intuition say? Screening a school, daycare, or youth program is a mixture of asking the right questions, looking at the space, observing interactions between adults and children—and also trusting your intuition. At MAC, Nancy welcomes questions about child sexual abuse prevention policies and practices. As you consider a program, look for open and welcoming communication.
It’s Never too Late to Screen
If you have not screened your current school or daycare, it’s not too late! In fact, ongoing conversations about body safety remind administrators how important it is to develop and enforce policies.
While sexual abuse can happen anywhere – even with screening – you can help protect your child and help make your community safer by building awareness for child sexual abuse prevention. Check out this free Parenting Safe Children download: Back to School Screening Packet.
The Parenting Safe Children community on Facebook is 1,300 strong and we’re having some great conversations. In July, we had a two-week dialogue about child pornography and how to keep kids safe. And guess what we’re doing for the month of September? Thirty posts in 30 days with Back2School Prevention Tips. Check us out on Facebook now!
FREE Download Back to School
It’s never too late to screen for your child’s safety! Download this free checklist and use it to screen or rescreen your child’s school or daycare provider. Imagine the unified message we’d be sending if every one of you did this!
I wrote a lot about the Sandusky (Penn State) trial on Facebook because it represents complete individual and institutional failure on behalf of children. This tragedy also presents us with an enormous teachable moment. Here are some lessons to consider.
Be wary of hero worship. We cannot honor a person’s stature, position, or notoriety at the expense of children's safety. Sandusky and Paterno are not heroes. Sandusky is a pedophile, and Paterno was complicit in allowing the sexual abuse of children on his watch. Consider your own attitudes toward the leaders in organizations which care for your child, and don’t be intimidated about asking hard questions.
Be vigilant about screening. Unfortunately, in the quest for power, adults may debase children. If you enroll your child in a program affiliated with a “hero,” or in a program which seeks the spotlight and winning at any cost, screen and screen again. Ask to read the organization’s body-safety policies, ask how the policies translate to practices, and find out how body-safety policies and practices are monitored. You have a right to ask, “Has anyone in your organization ever been accused of inappropriately touching a child? If so, how did you handle it?”
Own the responsibility. We all – as individuals and members of communities – share responsibility for keeping children safe. Make sure the volunteers, staff, and administrators who interact with your children in school and youth programs have been trained to honor and uphold the body safety of all children.
You don’t need proof to protect a child. While everyone has a right to due process, do not hesitate to speak up if you see concerning behaviors. Learn the warning signs, and if you see something or suspect something, tell the organization’s leader, call social services, or report it to the police. If you don’t, you are complicit and can be held liable.
Regularly talk with kids about body safety. With all the responsibilities of parenting, it can be tough to continually reinforce body-safety rules, yet it’s important to keep those conversations alive—e.g., “No one is allowed to touch the private areas of your body or ask you to touch theirs. If anyone tries to or does touch your private parts, tell a trusted adult.” Children don’t always tell when they are being abused because they may have been threatened and/or may fear losing a person they love or admire. So remind them, “It’s never too late to tell. I will not be mad at you. I will always love you.”
I have lots of Parenting Safe Children workshop dates in Colorado this fall. To register, or for more information, see my schedule.
If you are interested in hosting a workshop, I have a few slots open in early December and into 2013.
I’d like to give a shout out to these organizations that are hosting this fall because each one is going the extra distance toward building a community that is off limits to child sexual abuse.
The Fisher Early Learning Center at the University of Denver (9/13) is providing a Parenting Safe Children Professional In-service and workshop for parents so everyone is on the same page.
Steve Moorehouse, pastor and father, is hosting a Parenting Safe Children workshop at the Community Church in Gunnison, CO (9/20). He’s promoting it to the entire community and will provide childcare and dinner!
Pitkin County Health & Human Services is hosting for the fourth time on 9/25, and is partnering with the Buddy Program to reach down the Roaring Fork Valley.
Rachel & Erik Carlson are hosting in Evergreen on 12/1 for the fifth time!