Serving Our Communities

The Community Outreach and Education team has done an amazing job finding creative and meaningful ways to assist the community in the past six months. While other organizations have had to close their doors or go silent, BCAC knows it is now more important than ever to provide resources and be present. Even while virtual, it is imperative to reach out to our community.

DIVAS and Power
Beginning the first week of April, the DIVAS and Power programs for youth who have experienced some type of trauma in their lives have operated virtually. To ensure the same levels of participation prior to the pandemic we provided each of our students with the necessary technology. This was a critical lifeline not only for group virtual meetings, but also to correct any academic barriers the participants experienced. In addition, we provided them with school, personal, and household supplies to support all aspects of their lives. The COE team continuously provided many hours of guidance throughout the remainder of the school year as our youths faced this new and unique challenge of virtual learning. In July, DIVAS even held its annual summer session virtually! With a focus on self-care, we hosted six guest speakers who spoke on a range of topics. Our very own Dr. Kerry Hannan and Rachel Preloh were amongst the guest speakers providing our DIVAS with the benefits of mindfulness and yoga.

Volunteer Program
Before the pandemic started, BCAC had volunteers in and out of the office helping with child development, crafts and office administration every day. In April, our volunteers made the shift to full virtual volunteering. Our volunteers are resilient and persistent. They have helped with research projects, event planning for virtual events, Zoom workshops for children to keep them engaged and having fun during the summer, and even helping create a social media craft video series on our BCAC Facebook page. We have actually gained more volunteers during the pandemic. Our volunteer on-boarding and orientation has shifted to a Zoom training, in which volunteers can still learn everything they need to so they can begin making the difference they wish to seek. BCAC is thankful for all these individuals who have joined us in this mission and have been vital during this time.

Community Initiatives
One need we also quickly understood was the need for awareness for resources available to residents. BCAC connected with various community centers and food pantries to understand what services we could provide during this pandemic. BCAC staff helped at food pantry events and delivered food to people in need who could not attend. We coordinated writing letters and connecting with the elderly in our community to make sure they stayed resilient. We created a resource list to distribute to clients and also hosted a virtual resource fair.

Training
With the assistance of the Violence Intervention and Prevention programs of LifeBridge Health, we have been able to provide virtual training to the community and professionals on subject matters such as trauma-informed care, resiliency, intimate partner violence, elder justice, community violence and child abuse prevention through webinars and Facebook Live sessions. We have trained nearly 3,000 people from all over the world since March, including facilitating virtual trainings for many youth serving organizations. Our online education opportunities provide a safe, effective and important alternative to in-person training.Our team continues to examine how our field is affected by this public health crisis and what contributions we can be making to help our communities.

Back to School COVID Style

As families of school-age children gear up to go back to school, this year looks dramatically different. From kids, to parents, to teachers, the return to learning comes with great uncertainty and anxiety. COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc in our region and for most students that means the return to learning is online this Fall. This pandemic is challenging all of us in numerous ways—physically, emotionally and intellectually—and schools are struggling to do what is best for keeping kids on track while also keeping everyone safe.

At Baltimore Child Abuse Center, we watched as kids took to their devices in the Spring not knowing what was to come. Six months later, we are hopeful that teachers have a better handle on what online learning should look like for K-12 kids and how they can best engage, teach and stimulate Baltimore students. BCAC will continue to offer safety and guidance to support kids, parents and caregivers, from fun activities and projects to helpful resources that give parents, caretakers and others a place to turn if they suspect something with a child is not right.

As we’ve all already painfully learned, there are many downfalls to kids not being in school—from nutritional deprivation, to inequity of supplies and technology, to another set of eyes watching over our communities’ most vulnerable children. It is often teachers and caregivers who report abuse: if kids are not in school, we all need to be the extra set of eyes and ears. And to the parents out there who are balancing more than they ever thought possible—BCAC sees and hears you. It is important to remember you are not alone. Here is a great New York Times article that addresses the feelings many parents are facing about back-to-school choices.

Check out these tips for being an extra set of eyes:

  • ask creative questions
  • ask directly how the pandemic has affected everyone at home
  • notice if adults seem overwhelmed and try to offer support to them
  • open up about how you’re doing or what’s been hard for you
  • encourage virtual/social distance playdates with friends and peers
  • ask kids about how their family members are doing

Best of luck for a good start to school and feel free to reach out to BCAC via info@bcaci.org if you need anything!

Race for Our Kids goes Hybrid in 2020

Do not miss your opportunity to support BCAC in 2020 with Race for Our Kids, which benefits Samuelson Children’s Hospital, Baltimore Child Abuse Center and the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics. This is always a fun way to take part in a great community event while helping to raise significant funds for crisis support for many who need it. If you don’t want to race, you can still make an impact for kids in our community with a donation.

To protect the health and safety of our participants, we have made the difficult decision to transition the Race for Our Kids event to a hybrid model. We will host a program online the morning of Sunday, October 25, 2020, which will be followed by participants running and/or walking in the location of their choice—neighborhood, local park or track, or treadmill. Where you race is up to you! We are encouraging participants to get creative! Participants then have the option on a later date to visit the Zoo wearing their Race for Our Kids shirt.

Each registered participant will receive a “Walk/Race in the Box.” Inside will be their shirt(s), Zoo tickets, Finisher Medals, bibs for the runners and lots of other goodies. There will be specific instructions to follow regarding their Zoo visit, as reservations are now required for timed entry. A variety of dates and times will be provided.

Even though we cannot be together on Sunday, October 25, we can still come together to celebrate the incredible treatment and recovery our pediatric families have experienced at Sinai and Baltimore Child Abuse Center over the years. Many surprises will be part of this year’s newly modified event, and we will be sure to keep you in the loop. Thank you for your continued support and we look forward to navigating this adventure with you. We are making every effort to be creative so this is a WOW event, and it will be fun and unique.

Staying Mentally Healthy this Fall

With Baltimore City and Baltimore County school districts both announcing recently their respective decisions to start the school year with distance learning, we must consider the impact the pandemic continues to have on the mental health of students and caregivers. 

With Baltimore City and Baltimore County school districts both announcing recently their respective decisions to start the school year with distance learning, we must consider the impact the pandemic continues to have on the mental health of students and caregivers. 

We recently polled a small group of children ages 11-12 years old on the ways that COVID-19 is impacting their lives. The results are unsettling, yet not surprising. Of the youth we surveyed, 75% agreed that they are afraid and/or anxious about how COVID-19 affects or might affect them and others they care about. 75% of them reported that COVID-19 has disrupted their daily lives and 50% agreed that COVID-19 is affecting their ability to do things they enjoy. Half of the youth surveyed also reported that COVID-19 has caused them to miss at least one important milestone or event. This includes graduation ceremonies, birthday parties, summer camp, and vacations.

Being home together 24/7 has also been a challenge for many families. Caregivers are feeling overwhelmed and pressured to entertain children while simultaneously juggling responsibilities like work and sibling rivalry. Household tension has likely increased with the onset of COVID-19, too.

Despite these many challenges, Baltimore Child Abuse Center recommends that families can also choose to appreciate the new unexpected opportunities available to them. Before social isolation, they may not have had the chance to slow down and live in the present. They can take the opportunity to bond with those who they may not otherwise have been able to spend this time with. Families can take advantage of this new prolonged time and allow themselves to live life more fully.

We are also encouraging families to do things to help them mentally get through the road ahead. First, manage expectations and extend grace as needed. This may look like not expecting children to do as many daily hours of schoolwork as they were doing this time last year, or parents giving themselves permission to be flexible with their remote work schedules. Second, recognize that this is a “new now” and we are all figuring it out as we go. Finally, practice individual and family self-care. Allow family members—both as individuals and as a unit—to figure out what they need to cope with the many effects of this pandemic and determine how to best safely take care of those needs. Take family walks around the neighborhood—with masks on as necessary—or allow a child access to a cell phone to video chat with a relative or friend they have not been able to visit in a while.

Also recognize that not everyone may have some of the accessibility or ease of quarantine your family has—reach out to those families who may be struggling or have less flexibility than you have. Share technology, offer to watch kids outside, create “bubbles” to be able to provide child-care or tutoring, offer to pick-up groceries or share chores.

BCAC is hosting several upcoming trainings including this helpful webinar Protecting Your Children’s Mental Health During COVID-19 on Monday Sept 28, from 1-3 pm. Click on the link to register.

If you cannot attend the webinar, here are some helpful tips:

  • Let your child tell you what they need (in words, or behavior).
  • Ensure the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver.
  • Provide age-appropriate information.
  • Create a safe physical and emotional environment by practicing these 3 R’s: Reassurance, Routines and Regulation.
  • Increase children’s self-efficacy.
  • Create opportunities for caregivers (which may mean yourself!) to take care of themselves.
  • Emphasize strengths, hope and positivity.
  • Monitor and understand your child’s online exploration and safety.
  • Remember this is not permanent, we will get through this together. Take a deep breath and stay well.

Back to School Safety

By Elisheva Aufrichtig

Summer is drawing to a close, the days are growing shorter again, and school is starting. Whether your child loves school or dreads it, it is important that parents and caregivers share personal safety tips with their children before they start the new year. It can be a difficult subject to think about, and even harder to talk about with your child, but statistics show that sexual abuse is unfortunately all too common: one in four girls and one in six boys will experience sexual abuse before they reach age 18.

Your child’s safety is not guaranteed at school. Strangers are not more likely to commit child abuse; in fact, over 90% of sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows—such as a teacher, coach, family friend, or family member. Teach your child that the authority of adults has limits and nobody is every allowed to see or touch their private parts, except for certain trusted people in cases of hygiene and safety such as doctors. 

Educate your child about personal safety and let your child know that they can ask you about any concerns or questions that may come up. Research shows that an educated child is more likely to deter an offender because an educated child is more likely to break the silence.

Start by teaching your child the proper names for their private body parts, which will help them communicate with you. Talking with children calmly and matter-of-factly about body parts demonstrates that you feel comfortable talking about these parts and they are not “bad” or “gross.”

Model characteristics of healthy relationships and boundaries in your own life. When children know what is expected in a normal relationship, they can recognize when their school relationships, whether with a teacher or classmate, become inappropriate. Abuse is never the child’s fault. Help your child understand that they will not get in trouble if they tell you about a touching secret and that it is never too late to tell.

Elisheva Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.

Through the Eyes of a Child: A Visit to BCAC

By Elisheva R. Aufrichtig

After experiencing abuse, witnessing a homicide, or undergoing other trauma, it is crucial that a child receives empathetic care and is allowed to tell his or her story in a comfortable, child-friendly, pressure-free setting. At Baltimore Child Abuse Center (BCAC), the child development specialists, pediatricians, forensic interviewers, and all of the other professionals are specifically trained to work with children who have experienced trauma and make their experience as easy as possible. The following is a true-to-life fictionalized account of what a child might experience in the course of a day at BCAC.

Our car pulls up to a big red and gray building. We walk up some stairs, get buzzed in, and go up to the security guy’s desk. The security guy asks us if we are going to BCAC and Grandma says yes, so he calls someone on the phone to come down and get us.

A lady with a big smile on her face comes out of the elevator. “Hello! I’m Ms. Vera. What’s your name? How are you doing? Do you know who you are visiting with today?”

I don’t know what to answer. I feel shy. Grandma tells her our names as we go up to the fourth floor.

The sounds of children playing float towards us as we leave the elevator. “Now, you get to go to the playroom right there. There are all sorts of toys and games and projects to do.” Butterflies hang from the ceiling on strings. Some kids are pretending to sell ice cream and cookies and others are crafting at a table. A baby crawls around with little baby toys.

***

We walk into the playroom and Grandma sits down. I sit next to her in a green chair and wonder what I’m supposed to do right now. A woman comes up to us and sits in the chair beside me.

“Hi, I’m Ms. Amanda,” she says. “What is your name?”

I tell Ms. Amanda my name and she starts talking about the play area. “We have many different toys and games that you can play with while you are in the playroom. We also have paint and other arts and crafts stuff for you to do, if you want. What would you like to play?”

“I guess I like painting.”

“If you want, you can paint with me at this table,” says Ms. Amanda.

I ask if she has any blue paint because it is my favorite and she says, “Yes!”

Right before we sit down at the table, I hear Ms. Amanda ask my Grandma if I can have a snack while we paint. Grandma says it’s fine and I’m so glad because I was too nervous to eat breakfast today and I’m getting hungry.

We start painting and swirling the blue paint around to make a sky makes me feel better, like I’m looking at the real sky.

Another woman named Ms. Denny walks into the playroom and says hi to grandma. She looks over at me painting with Ms. Amanda and says hi to me, too. She asks about my painting and I show her the blue swirly sky and also some purple dots I added to make a field of wildflowers. Ms. Denny then starts talking to Grandma.

While we are painting, I notice a picture of a dog in the playroom.

“Hey! You guys have a dog?”

“Yes, his name is Manny!”

“Dogs are, like, my favorite people in the world,” I say. “Can I play with him?”

Ms. Amanda says that I have to ask Grandma first to make sure it’s okay. After Grandma tells her that it’s okay and I’m not allergic to dogs, Ms. Amanda then asks all the other kids and grown-ups in the room if it’s okay if Manny comes to play in the playroom. After they all say yes, Ms. Amanda goes to get Manny.

While I wait, I go over to Ms. Kelly, who also plays with people in the playroom, and we eat the (not real!) ice cream that the other kids made for us.

Ms. Amanda comes back with Manny on a leash. I spend a lot of time with Manny. He’s big and huggable and I love petting and brushing his black fur since it makes me feel so calm. He can do the best tricks! He can even play games like Honey Bee Tree and pull out the leaves without the bees falling down. I’m really good at that game so he totally loses but that’s okay. Other kids hang around with us and I’m having a lot of fun.

Then another person comes over to talk with Grandma. “Hi, I’m Sammy Jo,” she says. “Your grandmother and I are going to go talk to some people downstairs, and soon we’ll come back and get you, and have a chance to talk more.”

***

When they come back, they come get me and we leave the playroom. We take Manny with us to the back, where there are many more rooms. Other people are waiting for us, including the cop I met yesterday. “Hey, again,” he says.

“Remember I said we were going to talk again today?” Sammy Jo says. “So I have a room for us to talk in.” Me and Sammy Jo and Manny go into a room with huge magenta rectangles and sort of gray-blue rectangles. I notice two cameras—they’re hard to miss.

“Why are there cameras in this room?” I ask.

“The camera records us while we talk so that I don’t forget anything you say. Everyone else is in another room, watching us, to help me do my job, and I wear this earpiece so that they can ask me questions if they want,” explains Sammy Jo.

We talk about school, my friends, and things I like to do for fun. Then she asks me questions about what happened to me and lets me tell the story in the way I want to. Manny is really nice and lets me hug him when I talk about the scary and bad parts. “Everything you’re telling me is really important. You’re doing a really good job helping me understand,” says Sammy Jo.

Afterwards, we go back out to the playroom and I play Hedbanz with Ms. Kelly and other kids.

***

“They told me that we’re going to have a visit with the doctor soon, honey,” says Grandma. We go upstairs in the elevator and walk through a colorful hallway.

The doctor introduces herself, “Hi, I’m Dr. Lane.”

I wonder why I need to visit a doctor. “But I’m not feeling sick.”

“Well, I’m going to look at you from your nose to your toes and check that everything is healthy. In the last part of the exam I take a look at your private parts. Do you know who is allowed to look at your private parts? Someone you trust who is helping you with a bath, in the bathroom, or a doctor like me.” She also shows me a camera and says they are going to take pictures to help them.

“Help you do what?” I ask her. “That’s weird.”

“Normally, nobody should take pictures of your private areas, but these photos are stored away in a file only for people who are meant to have access. The pictures help by making things bigger, so if I have any questions, you don’t have to come back; I can just look at the pictures.”

Grandma wants to ask a question. “Is the exam going to be…internal?”

“No,” says Dr. Lane. “I’m just taking a look at the outside.”

I start feeling very nervous. “Do I have to? Maybe we can come back another day for this.”

“Manny can stay in the room with us if you want. You seem a little nervous and Manny is great at helping people by staying close, right next to you. I know it’s uncomfortable and I’m going to make this as fast as possible; if anything hurts, I’ll change what I’m doing,” says Dr. Lane.

When we are finished, I get to pick out a stuffed animal. Obviously, I pick a dog. We head back downstairs and Ms. Kelly asks me to name my favorite color because she’ll be giving me a blanket. “Swirls of blue and green,” I say (that’s the coolest color). I also pick out a book: The Cat in the Hat since it has the weirdest and funniest pictures.

***

“But I don’t want to leave!” I say when Ms. Kelly and Ms. Vera and Sammy Jo and Ms. Denny say good-bye. “I didn’t even get to do the craft project.”

“Will you be coming to the support group on Thursday?” Ms. Denny asks Grandma.

“Maybe we’ll come back on Thursday and you can play here again,” Grandma tells me.

Elisheva Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.

Summer Camp: Building a Culture of Consent

By Curley Newgent

Each year, BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education team travels around the country training summer camp staff and counselors. By the end of July, we will have trained over 40 camps, meeting with counselors, supervisors, support staff and camp directors.

What frames our conversations with camp staff? We want campers to experience a positive connection with others at camp. We want them to begin to expect consensual and appropriate interactions at all times. We want them to expect that of each other, adults, and themselves. We want them to talk about moments or spaces where they feel uncomfortable, and to get support in getting out of those situations, or in healing from harm that they have experienced. And we want to build resiliency into their brain development by creating positive attachments with adults and peers.

Building a culture of consent protects children. If we teach kids that all interactions should be consensual–from a casual hug, high five, “can I tell you this story,” to sexual interactions and more intimate conversations–then young people will learn expect that. Anyone who has heard a child say “that’s not the way my [parent/caregiver] does [bedtime/my chore routine/my TV allotment]” knows that kids are uncomfortable with the unexpected.

If consent is expected, young people have a barometer to gauge when they feel uncomfortable in non-consensual interactions and what language to use to speak about it. We want this. We want young people to speak up, to try to leave, or to share with an adult if someone has made them feel uncomfortable or has interacted with them in a non-consensual way, regardless of how “serious” that interaction was.

When we teach that all interactions must be consensual, we are taking young people’s feelings seriously. If they don’t want to talk about something, we give them space (or if we have to talk to them about it even if they don’t want to, we ask how we can make that conversation more comfortable). If they want some comfort or attention, we give them that. This builds trust in our relationships with young people, which in turn raises the likelihood that they will share with us if they are feeling uncomfortable in other relationships or spaces.

Beyond that, what we have learned about brain development is that creating positive connections and relationships with young people actually changes the physical structure of a child’s brain. It makes it harder for them to be overwhelmed, and easier for them to calm down once they have been overwhelmed. It reduces long-term effects of trauma or negative experiences. The science and research around how trauma affects human development and how we react to various environments and interactions is constantly changing and improving, and we build our framework for camp training around the latest research.

The Community Outreach and Education team will be back onsite in the fall—stay tuned for our fall schedule of trainings for caregivers, organizations, and youth-serving professionals!

Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.

Running a Successful Volunteer Program: Tips for Youth-Serving Organizations

By Elisheva Aufrichtig

Managing volunteers and volunteer programs can be challenging. When trying to encourage people to volunteer for your school, sports league, church, synagogue, or non-profit, the last thing you want to do is scare away potential volunteers with piles of paperwork and discussions of child sexual abuse behaviors and outcomes. And when there are already multiple volunteers working with the children in your organization or business, and probably a high turnover rate, it can be daunting to implement a thorough screening and training plan.

There are some basic tips to remember that will help make the process easier.

Screening Volunteers is Not Optional
Youth-serving organizations can be targeted by individuals who want easy access to children. It is necessary for volunteers to understand the importance of thoroughly investigating people who will be working with children and that your organization takes safety very seriously.

Organizations working with troubled youth may be more at risk for sexual abuse, since troubled youth can be emotionally insecure, looking for affection, and lacking the support of a trusted adult. This applies to vulnerable adults as well, such as people with mental disabilities who may not recognize danger.

Implementing Screening of Volunteers
Volunteers may not commit long-term, but it is still important for your business or organization to invest effort into properly screening people who will be interacting with children. Especially for positions involving working one-on-one with youth, such as mentoring or tutoring, it is essential to screen for past crimes, potential issue traits, and suspicious behavior.

Teenage and high school volunteers are no exception. For teen volunteers, who might not have work references or available criminal records, you will need to conduct personal interviews, thorough reference checks, and perhaps require more detailed written applications. Teen volunteers should be more closely supervised, as well.

Even if the applicant is personally known to the volunteer coordinator or other people within the organization, such as a parent of one of the children, the applicant must still undergo a background check and screening. Unfortunately, 90% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone familiar to the child, meaning that strangers are not usually the criminals in these cases and abusers are hard to identify.

Sometimes a volunteer has a personality or temperament less suited to working with children. The position is just not the right fit, even if it’s not a question of abuse. Here at BCAC, during the interview process, Nicole Reed, our Volunteer Coordinator, asks how the applicant found out about our organization. With a former client, or anyone who is a sexual abuse survivor, she has a conversation about potential triggers and whether the applicant is ready to return to an advocacy center’s environment. This informal tool is used to better screen volunteers and make sure that they are protected and feel safe, as well.

Limitations of Background Checks
It is important to note that background checks have their limitations. Background checks should not be skipped, yet many sexual criminals have not been caught or charged and therefore would have no record. Additionally, criminal records for underage teens are usually confidential. Don’t think that simply because you have conducted a background check on someone, you know everything there is to know. A thorough in-person interview and speaking with references helps to gain a more accurate impression of someone.

At BCAC, every volunteer must have a phone conversation and a face-to-face meeting with our Volunteer Coordinator before starting, in addition to a criminal background check; this allows her to gain a more thorough understanding of the personality of the prospective volunteer.

Training Volunteers
The goal of training is to make volunteers feel comfortable, competent, and capable of doing what they are supposed to do. While training volunteers to do their job, incorporate training about preventing sexual abuse. They are part of your team in preventing child abuse.

Provide explanations of sexual abuse and symptoms to watch out for. Volunteers need to feel comfortable asking questions. Allow time to discuss, or even act out, scenarios as part of the learning process.

BCAC, in addition to offering preventative and informative trainings to other youth-serving organizations, also trains its own volunteers. Volunteers participate in child development training, learning about forensic interviews, and shadowing members of different teams at BCAC, during which they learn through observation and have the opportunity to ask questions. Importantly, volunteers learn the facts and statistics of child sexual abuse, what it looks like, and how to report it. They also learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), how they affect children long-term, and how the work at child advocacy centers like BCAC helps.

Organizations can’t let the fear of sexual abuse result in any form of neglect on the part of staff or volunteers. Children must be cared for with empathy, attention, emotional connection, and physical touch where appropriate. Create workplace policies and manuals which include the volunteer functions and child protection policy.

Ongoing Supervision
At BCAC, volunteers are always supervised, with either intermittent check-ins or by keeping volunteers in a shared space. Every volunteer position involves constant learning on the job, and there is a very open communication system if any concerns or issues arise.

If it seems like a volunteer isn’t the right fit for a position, or small problems come up, BCAC has a re-evaluation process and the volunteer is given an opportunity to undergo training again. Of course, if a major breach occurs, for instance in a confidentiality matter, the volunteer is dismissed.

In general, monitoring volunteers means overseeing their interactions with the children through both the announced and unannounced presence of a supervisor, always staying on-site with the children, and scheduled assessments. Behavior to watch out for includes, but is not limited to, a volunteer trying to spend time alone with the children, showing a preference for one specific child, or giving presents.

Reporting Structure
Our Volunteer Coordinator Nicole teaches BCAC’s volunteers how, and to whom, to report red flag behavior. This includes anything suspicious a child may say to the volunteer.

The volunteers themselves are a part of your team and are also responsible for the safety of the children. Teach them to monitor interactions within your organization and how to report anything suspicious. Define their roles from the start and include it in their training.

To learn more about BCAC’s trainings, contact Curley Newgent at cnewgent@bcaci.org. To get involved in BCAC’s volunteer program, contact Nicole Reed at nreed@bcaci.org.

Elisheva Aufrichtig is a Communications Intern at BCAC.

Let’s Talk About Consent

Classmates chatting

By Curley Newgent

Abuser. Perpetrator. Maltreater. We often think of an adult when we hear these words. When we hear “child sexual abuse” we usually imagine a stranger, a creepy predator, or a pedophile. However, most abuse is perpetrated by average people – adults and children alike. This is an uncomfortable thought; nobody likes to think their children are in danger on a day-to-day basis. But it also means we have to consider how we, or our own children, could be perpetrators, and not the scary stranger that is easier to consider.

While we are slowly getting better at teaching children that they have a right to say no, that their body is private, and they get to be in control of who enters their personal space, we also need to get better at teaching children and young people how to hear no. If the children we know and love could be hurting other children, it is our responsibility as adults to teach them how to treat each other and stand up for each other.

Throughout a young person’s development, we should be building the concept of consent into all of our interactions with them. They should learn to expect that we respect their personal space, and that we have the same expectation of them.

Teach children that everyone has the right to their own body and personal space: we may not touch each other without consent, and we must practice reading each other’s body language to gauge how comfortable our friends are with our behavior. There are developmentally appropriate ways to do this with children of all ages.

For infants, you can begin by narrating how you are interacting with them – “I am washing your body now, so that you will be clean and safe.” Children need to learn that they can expect an explanation (parents, doctors, and caregivers touch your body to keep you safe, healthy, and clean) about why someone may need to touch them.

As soon as young children are in control of their own body movements, we should begin to expect that they listen to other people’s boundaries, just like other people listen to theirs. That means as adults we stop tickling a child when the child says to stop, and it means that we expect our toddlers to not use adults as a jungle gym if the adult says no thanks.

As children get older, it is appropriate to talk more explicitly about consent and bodies. By the time children are in elementary school, consent can be a word they know and use in an everyday manner. By the time they are in middle school, young people should have a sense of the harm that they can do when they ignore their friends’ consent. It is appropriate to talk about hurting each other’s feelings, how they feel when their boundaries or wants are ignored, and how hard it can be to feel comfortable when our friends don’t treat us the way we want to be treated. It is important that we begin to differentiate between “treating people the way you want to be treated” and “treating someone the way they want to be treated.”

By late middle school/early high school, young people should have an explicit sense of sexual assault and the harm that comes when we don’t respect each other’s physical or emotional boundaries.

Of course, each family and caregiver must learn how to incorporate consent language into their own culture. Whether that’s about how we treat each other, how we take care of our siblings, or about how we stay safe, it has to be an authentic and consistent part of a child’s day-to-day learning experience, or they will not be able to internalize these skills.

Building consent into young people’s day-to-day is a protective factor for each young person – the more they know about their rights, the more likely they are to understand when someone (adult or child) is trying to cross their boundaries, and the less likely they are to cross someone else’s boundaries.

Curley Newgent is a Training Associate in BCAC’s Community Outreach and Education department.

Keep Kids Safe This Summer

Children playing Football

By Alison D’Alessandro

Summer is around the corner and it is a wonderful time for children to play, explore, and just be kids. Children will be visiting extended family, going to their friends’ houses, swimming at the pool, playing at the playground, and doing many other fun and exciting things. With the change in routine and being around more people, it is important to remember some basic tips to keep your children safe.

Talk about Body Safety
Teaching children the proper names for their private body parts will help them communicate with you if they should ever have a question related to illness, hygiene or abuse. Talking with children calmly and matter-of-factly about body parts demonstrates that these parts are good and special and that you as the parent feel comfortable talking about these parts. The most natural time to teach children this language is when they are toddlers and are learning the names for the other parts of their bodies.

Teach and Model Healthy Relationships
Teach and model characteristics of healthy relationships including empathy, expressed feelings, equality, fairness, respect, and boundaries. When children learn what is healthy, they are more likely to recognize and question unhealthy behaviors. Encourage your child to come to you and other helpful, healthy adults with questions about bodies and touch. Also, review your family’s values and rules for both at home and when you are not around. It is important to know that most abuse is at the hands of someone who has gained the trust of a victim and their family and is someone the child know, loves, or trusts. It is critical that children have a strong understanding of healthy relationships. Also, children must be empowered to listen to their instincts.

Teach Your Child that They are the Boss of their Body
Respect your child’s decision to protect their body and space. Their body is theirs, so respect their “no” and teach others that your child is not being rude, but rather establishing their boundaries. An offender won’t typically immediately start touching body parts that a bathing suit covers but instead will slowly try to groom a child and their parents and caregivers through other more “normal” touches. Do not use the term “good touch, bad touch.” We are all sexual beings and sometimes “bad” touches feel good. Instead, teach your kids to be the boss of their body and that they should tell you anytime something feels weird or uncomfortable. Role-play to help kids get comfortable using their words to set boundaries and let them know to set boundaries with other children as well as adults. Help children understand their physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries.

Tell Your Child that Secrets are Not Okay
Adults and other children should never ask a child to keep a secret about touch. Tell your children that there are no secrets kept in your family, and no one should ever ask them to keep a secret. Talk about surprises instead – how we surprise people with gifts and presents on their birthday or planning a party. The difference is that surprises are always shared with others and secrets are not. Help your child to understand what they can do if someone asks them to keep a secret.

Watch for “Red Flags” with Other Adults and Children
Make sure that all interactions with others are observable, interruptible, and appropriate. Offenders operate by access, privacy, and control. If our child must be alone with an adult for lessons or camp or babysitting, check in occasionally or show up at an unexpected time, just to be sure everything is okay. Trust your instincts and remove your child from a situation if you feel uncomfortable. Listen to your child if they tell you something is wrong and observe their interactions with the person. Be aware of red flags such as an adult treating your child as a peer, using inappropriate language or inappropriate touch, not respecting your child’s privacy, allowing or encouraging illegal activities, treating your child as a favorite, or engaging inappropriately or excessively on social media.

Talk and Talk and Talk Some More
Remember abuse is never the child’s fault. Help your child understand that they will not get in trouble if they tell you about a touching secret, and that it is never too late to tell. Empathize with your child that while it is always ok to say “no” to any kind of touch, this can be very hard to do. Create an environment in your home where children feel comfortable sharing information and asking tough questions without being judged. Listen carefully. Nurture an understanding of healthy relationships in your child. Demonstrate the importance of sharing feelings. Evidence suggests that children are more likely to disclose abuse when a parent or loved one initiates a conversation about sexuality or abuse. Learn and exchange current information with your friends and neighbors regarding child sexual abuse so that you will be better able to protect your child. Ongoing communication with our children can help to nurture qualities within them that render them less likely to be targets of abuse. Good communication ensures that when something is difficult or something goes wrong, family and community are there to help.

Finally, it is imperative that all incidents of inappropriate behavior of an adult with a minor be reported to the appropriate person and/or civil authorities. Not all incidents are abuse, but reporting can let the person know that their behavior is unacceptable and that it is being monitored. This gives the person the opportunity to change their behavior. If child abuse is suspected, it must be reported to the appropriate civil authorities immediately as required by Maryland law, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.

We must all work together to protect our children and to help them have happy childhoods and develop into strong and healthy adults.

Alison D’Alessandro is BCAC’s Senior Policy & Program Specialist. Alison has a Master’s degree in Organizational Development and Human Resources from Johns Hopkins University.  She educates youth-serving professionals throughout the Baltimore area on creating safe environments and child abuse awareness.