Protecting our children

Last night I had the privilege of hearing a talk by Stacy Honowitz, a 23 year veteran of the State Attorney’s Office, with 18 years dedicated to the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit in Broward County, Florida. She is also the author of a book “My Privates are Private” for kids.
The talk was held at our synagogue, hosted by our Sisterhood.

I went because I am a parent, and I see it as my duty to understand how to protect my children. There are some things I can control, some I cannot, but I can always try to be as educated as possible in all areas regarding my children’s safety.

Most of my friends will tell you that I am fanatic about  carseats. I don’t care what the law says – Florida law is the most lenient and wishy-washy of all 50 states, when it comes to child restraint laws – I care about the facts, and what actually will help my kids remain as safe as possible when traveling in a car. My 8 year old still sits in a booster seat, and she will continue to do so until she is 4’9″.
And I tell my kids (and other kids in my car) constantly to sit still, because a booster seat simply positions the seatbelt properly but will not restrain them in a collision unless they are sitting properly and the belt can lock the way it needs to.

Thankfully, I have no experience with sexual abuse. I saw last night as an opportunity to hear from someone who sees it all the time so that I could learn something. Someone who admits that she has seen so much that she is jaded and neurotic, but who told us that we shouldn’t have to be neurotic, just informed.

I left feeling empowered, not scared.
I left feeling that I have the tools to use when speaking to my children, not terrified of letting them play at a friend’s house.
I left feeling that I still trust the vast majority of my kids’ friends’ parents, but that I know now what to tell my kids before they go play or have a sleepover at someone else’s house.

I had hard time sleeping last night though. Why? Simply because of the number of people who showed up for this. Or I should say, the number of people who did NOT show up. We are a community numbering over 600 families. Most of these families have children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces. Children are an integral part of our community. Every Simchat Torah, we are in complete awe at how many more children are under the Talit for Kol HaNe’arim than the previous year. Our preschools and day schools have to close out kids because there isn’t space, or find space for an additional class for some grades because there are so many children.

How many people were present last night? About 20. And that included Jacob (Coco) Cohen, a member of our community who is a Public Defender in Broward County, who has worked closely with Ms. Honowitz and introduced her, and the two ladies (Sally Berenzweig & Cherie Benjoseph) who run the KidSafe program, which Hillel Day School has integrated into the Elementary and Middle School over the last few years. Coco, it should be noted, often defends the very predators that Ms. Honowitz is prosecuting. He has 3 young children himself, and said he never lets them out of his sight in public.

So where were all those parents and grandparents last night? Are those people naive enough to believe that sexual abuse is not a problem within the Orthodox Jewish community? Are they stupid enough to think “it doesn’t apply to me”, “it will never happen to me”? Do they really believe that they already know everything they need to know in order to protect their children? Or maybe simply, if I ignore it, it will go away.

The internet has increased child pornography in a way that could never have been imagined. Access to porn in general has never been easier. A predator looks just like anyone else. He’s a father, uncle, brother, son, friend, mother, daughter, sister, teacher. Ms. Honowitz said that about 10% of the offenders she sees are women. She also said that there has been a huge increase in the number of cases where a teacher is the predator.

I’m not suggesting that we wrap our kids in bubble wrap and then glue them to our sides. I’m not suggesting that we no longer allow playdates or sleepovers at friends’ houses.

I’m simply suggesting that all parents take an interest in something that is real. It exists in all realms of society – upper class, lower class, middle class, rich and poor. Sexual abuse of children knows no boundaries, not in race, religion, class or culture. It is most prevalent in “fanatic” sects of any religion. I use the term “fanatic” loosely, because Orthodox Jews are included in that description. Why is it so prevalent here? My theory is that in these societies (my own included) there is more of a tendency to “let it go”. An attitude of dealing with it from within. Perhaps it is reported less within these societies, because it doesn’t look good to the outside world. And so these predators get off lightly, with a warning, perhaps losing a job, but circumstances are not disclosed fully. So someone working at a school is dismissed, but can get hired at a different school, where s/he goes on doing the same things.

By educating our children in “good touch/bad touch”, we are not only empowering them to know what is right, and what is wrong, we are also teaching them that when someone does something bad to them, they will get punished. As a parent, we need to show our children that we are willing to go to great lengths to punish anyone who hurts them. By prosecuting those guilty of sexual assault, no matter how big or small (is there such a thing?!), we are not only protecting our own children, but also the other children that the predator has not yet reached. We are making sure that our kid does not suffer for years until the touching becomes full blown intercourse. We are hopefully guaranteeing minimal psychological damage.

If I sound angry, I am. I can’t believe that this wasn’t a jam packed event, standing room only. I feel like I’m pretty aware of the world around me. I know not to let me kids go to the bathroom alone in public places. I also know that I’m realistic and practical. I don’t believe I can protect my children from every danger out there. But I do believe that I can empower them to know the difference between right and wrong, between good and bad, and teach them that I will always listen to them if they feel something has happened to them that is wrong or bad.

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