Thoughts from a future mom: Parenting amidst violence

We bring you this guest post from Leah Holland with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

Recently, the folks at Can You Relate invited me to write a guest post on their blog. I planned to write about how trans folks are impacted by reproductive coercion. Then Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer and I felt compelled to change topics.Audre-Lorde-no-border

Working in the anti-violence field with an anti-oppression focus keeps the intersections of peoples’ lives in the forefront of my mind. I can’t ignore that the impact of abuse is different for children of color than for white children. I can’t ignore that children of color must be taught how to interact with the police differently than white children.

And I don’t want to ignore it. You see, I’m in the middle of planning a wedding and a pregnancy. My sweetie is brown. I am white. We talk a lot about where and how we want to raise our children. My sweetie asked me this morning what I thought the hardest part will be for me being a white mom to a brown baby. Easy: OTHER PEOPLE.

Needing to trust other people is what is scariest to me. That was one of my biggest hurdles in deciding to have kids—knowing I can’t always keep them safe. I know all the stats about who is more likely to sexually abuse a child (hint: it’s someone the child knows).

In an interview for Ebony’s Ending Rape 4ever series, Monika Johnson Hostler says: “I always tell people, ‘As a parent do I worry about stranger danger?’ Yes. [However] the people in our lives that are associated with us, that it appears that we trust, those are the people I worry about most.” YES! And with the reality that one African-American is murdered by police every 28 hours, comes the recognition that the people we’re supposed to trust to keep us safe don’t keep everyone safe.

I’ll never be able to understand what it’ll be like for our child to be multiracial. But my sweetie and I will do our best to get them ready for the institutional, systemic, and individual racism they WILL face. If the other bad stuff happens too, at least I know our child will be believed, told it’s not their fault, and get help. And if our brown baby identifies as trans, we’re ready to parent at that intersection too.

Cuando el NO de tu niña/o se transforma en silencio (When your child’s NO becomes silence)

Esta blog fue escrito con Leah Holland de la Coalición de Programas de Asalto Sexual de Washington.

Where-We-Live_web-1Casi un año atrás estuve presente en una reunión de amigos en donde se encontraba este hombre, muy querido por el grupo, jugando un juego  con las hijas del vecino. Me informaron que el juego sucedía cada vez que el veía a estas niñas. Este hombre ya en sus avanzados veintes corría detrás de las niñas y las colgabas de cabeza para abajo. La niña de seis años  parecía estar divirtiéndose al principio del juego pero la niña de diez lo empujaba y le decía que se mantuviera alejado. El hombre ignoraba el mensaje directo de la niña (como si no significara si) y continuaba el juego. Yo le pedí a la pareja del hombre que le comunicara a él que la niña estaba tratando de hacer respetar su cuerpo. Ella no disfrutaba del juego y parecía que la niña de seis años estaba irritándose también. La pareja de este hombre me respondió que ella ha estado tratando de explicarle que el juego no les parecía divertido a las niñas, pero también agrego que “todo los niños/as lo amaban y lo consideraban el mejor tío del mundo.” Eso fue lo último de nuestra conversación.

¿Que podría haber hecho y dicho yo acerca de esta situación con el objetivo de comunicar un concepto muy complejo a todos los/as tíos, tías, padres y hermanos con buenas intenciones que se encontraban allí? Yo no intervine directamente y sabía que el grupo con el que estaba, consideraba ese comportamiento culturalmente aceptable. Tampoco quise decir algo  en frente de la pareja de este hombre que podría haber sido tomado como un intento de sexualizar lo que estaba pasando, pero tuve influencia sobre ella para que convenciera a su pareja de que parará el juego con las niñas (aunque le llevo muchos intentos). Esta situación me puso a pensar seriamente acerca de la importancia de intervenir cuando vemos que hay niños/as pasando por situaciones como ésta.

Como adultos es fácil de olvidarnos de que la manera que los adultos respectaron o no nuestros límites personales  cuando éramos niños/as tiene un impacto durante toda nuestra vida. Las conversaciones con los niño/as acerca de los límites personales parecen ser mas populares cuando los padres dicen a sus hijos que no se dejen tocar por extraños “allá abajo.” ¿Pero que hay acerca de decirles a los niños que no toquen a otros niños cuando éstos no quieren ser tocados? ¿Decirle a los niños que está bien el no besar, abrazar o apretar las manos de alguien si ellos no lo desean? ¿Decirles a los niños de que cuando ellos sean adultos tienen que respetar los límites personales de los niños/as que no quieren jugar juegos donde los cuelgan de cabeza hacia abajo? Complicando las cosas un poco más, es difícil de pensar que los adultos que conocemos estén, sin intención alguna, haciendo  a  un niño/a más vulnerable a la coerción sexual en el futuro con el hecho de ignorar sus voces ahora. Este mensaje es comunicado con más fuerza a las niñas. Las niñas son frecuentemente criadas para ser calladas, sumisas y complacientes.

¿Parecería que las niñas presente en esta reunión están siendo criadas con la confianza para decir cuándo algo no les agrada, pero cuanto tiempo continuaran pensando que tienen este derecho si sus voces son constantemente ignoradas por los adultos? ¿Cuánto tiempo tomara hasta que sus voces de NO se transformen en silencio? ¿Si ellas están viendo que si alguien con más poder quiere acceso a sus cuerpos, lo obtiene, cómo podrán ellas hablar de consentimiento con sus parejas en el futuro? ¿Cómo podrán ellas reconocer coerción?

¿Entonces qué podemos hacer? Podemos enseñar a nuestros niños a que pregunten antes de abrazar a alguien y pedir que otros adultos no insistan que un niño/a les den un beso, pero no podemos ser los únicos adultos trabajando en contra de la cultura normativa que devalúa las voces y los derechos de los niños/as. Ya sea que ocurra en el grupo de iglesia, grupo de chicas y chicos scouts, o pequeñas ligas organizadas, nosotros podemos acercarnos a otros adultos para hablar acerca de que podemos hacer para empoderar a los niño/as a que usen sus voces, pero también hacer responsables a los adultos cuando vemos comportamientos potencialmente problemáticos. Así, ayudamos a los niño/as desarrollar buenos  límites personales y también  cambiar las normas culturales que facilitan que el abuso sexual de niños/as continúe.

La Coalición de Programas de Asalto Sexual de Washington, está apoyando un plan de enseñanza de prevención de asalto sexual de niño/as, Donde Vivimos (Where We Live), que está diseñado a enseñar a los adultos a reconocer comportamiento preocupante y a intervenir de manera efectiva para mantener seguro a los niño/as. Donde Vivimos específicamente se enfoca en comportamientos “luz amarilla” que no son explícitamente abusivos pero que pueden ser señales de comportamiento predatorio o falta de respeto por los derechos y límites personales de los niño/as. Donde Vivimos es gratis y descargable a través de la Coalición en contra de la Violación de Pennsylvania. ¡Revíselo y díganos su opinión!

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This post was co-authored with Leah Holland with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

About a year ago I was attending a gathering where this man, well-liked by the group I was with, was playing a game with the neighbor’s children. I came to find out this happens every time he saw these girls. The man, who is well into his late twenties, would run after the two girls, catch them, and lift them upside down. The six year old was finding it amusing at first, but the ten year old would push him away and tell him to stay away. He would disregard her strong message (taking her no as a playful yes) and continue the game. I asked the man’s partner to communicate to him that the girl was trying to tell him to respect her boundaries. She did not enjoy the play and it seemed that the six year old was becoming increasingly annoyed as well. His partner replied that she has been trying to get him to understand that what he was doing to these two girls was not funny to them, but she also added that “all the children love him and consider him the best uncle in the world.” The conversation was left at that.

What could I have done and said about the situation to communicate a very complex concept to the many well-intentioned uncles, aunts, parents, and siblings who were there? I did not intervene directly and I knew the group found this behavior culturally acceptable. I did not want to say something that could be construed as me sexualizing the situation. I enlisted his partner to get him to stop the game (though it took her many attempts). This situation really got me to think seriously about why it is important that we do intervene when we see things like this happening to children.

As adults it is easy to forget that the way people respected (or didn’t) our boundaries as children, directly impacts us throughout life. Conversations with children about boundaries seem to be popular when it is parents telling children not to let strangers touch them “down there.” But what about telling children not to touch other children when they don’t want to be touched? Telling children that it is ok not to want to kiss, hug, or shake someone’s hand if they don’t want to? What about telling children that when they grow up to be adults they need to respect the boundaries of children who don’t want to play upside down games? To further complicate things it is hard to think that adults we know may be unintentionally making a child more vulnerable to sexual coercion in the future by ignoring their voices now. This message is conveyed even stronger to girls. Girls are often raised to be quiet, obedient, and accommodating.

It seems like the girls at this gathering are being raised to feel confident in saying no when they do not like what is happening, but how long will they feel that  they have this right if their voices are constantly ignored by adults? How long will it take for them to quit saying NO and just stay silent? If they are being shown that when someone with more power wants access to their bodies they get it, how will they be able to talk about consent with their partners in the future? How will they be able to recognize coercion?

So where does this leave us? We can teach our children to ask before they hug someone, and ask adults not to insist a child give them a kiss, but we can’t be the only adults working against the cultural norm of devaluing the voices and rights of children. Whether it’s a church group, Girl or Boy Scouts, or Little League, we can bring adults together to talk about what we can do to empower kids to use their voices, but also hold adults accountable when we see potentially problematic behavior. Not only will this help children develop good boundaries, but it can also change the cultural norms that allow child sexual abuse to continue.

The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs  is piloting a child sexual assault prevention curriculum, Where We Live that is designed to teach adults to recognize concerning behavior and intervene effectively to keep kids safe. Where We Live specifically focuses on “yellow light” behaviors that are not explicitly abusive but may be signs of grooming or a lack of respect for children’s rights and boundaries. Where We Live is free, and downloadable from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Check it out and tell us what you think!

Gut check

Photo by VIUDeepBay
Photo by VIUDeepBay

Last summer was the fourth year my family spent a weekend at Jewish family camp. It’s a great experience that I look forward to. Campfires, talent show, crafts, folk dancing, learning and building community, all on the shores of Puget Sound.

Last year was all those great things once again. But I also had an unsettling experience that I’ve been thinking about since. One of my boys had a tough time in the kids program. He is a sensitive kid, and the stress and stimulation of camp was more than he could handle. He was agitated and needed help to calm down. The children’s program director—who was also a teacher at a local synagogue’s religious school—stepped in.

The way he handled the situation was spectacularly unhelpful. It was like a textbook of what not to do to de-escalate a kid. Over several conversations, his responses ranged from inappropriate to absurd. He ranted about being in charge. He was self-absorbed. He warned my kindergartner not to “start fights he couldn’t finish.” It quickly became clear to me he did not have the skill or emotional maturity for the job he was doing. I wondered how he could have kept his job as a religious school teacher if this was how he handled conflict with kids and parents.

I recently learned that this program director, Lydia Katz (pronounced L’Dee-ah), is in prison on child molestation charges. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl he taught in religious school. According to news reports, the sexual abuse went on the same summer he spent with us at camp.

When I heard the news I was shocked but not surprised. I started rethinking what I saw and didn’t see, what I did and what I should have done.

The charging papers described Lydia as a “dynamic and charismatic individual who is able to easily engage with youth.” One way of seeing him was as flamboyant, fun, youthful, outside the box. Another was as narcissistic, immature, manipulative.

Sometimes we do exactly the wrong things to protect our kids from exactly the wrong people. A friend’s preschooler came home recently from a “safety” presentation convinced that “strangers will murder you, your sister, your parents, and your dog.”

Telling kids to fear all strangers is a useless message. And the flip side of that message is downright dangerous: you can trust all adults who you “know.” It is not that trusted adults are likely to be abusers, but abusers absolutely are likely to be trusted adults. (90% of teens who are sexually assaulted are hurt by someone they know. That number is even higher for younger victims.)

The world where only strangers and monsters are unsafe is a fantasy. As much as I may wish I could teach my kids a simple rule that would keep them safe, in the real world they need to develop independent judgment about who to trust. I try to talk to them about the complex process I use to gauge whether someone is safe or trustworthy. I explain why I decided to open the door for this stranger, but not another. Why I chose this neighbor’s house as the place they should go if they need help. When I will talk with someone on the street, and when I just keep walking. Even as young kids, they have to make these decisions all the time, and I want us to practice together.

Now we have the chance to reflect and practice as a community. I’m sure I was not the only one who noticed Lydia was immature and had terrible boundaries. What did we think that meant at the time? What do we see now, with the clarity of hindsight?

This is not about assigning blame. This is gut check practice.

It takes practice—even as an adult—in part because our gut reactions are not pure. We all internalize a lot of garbage that can be hard to filter out. My oldest son once wanted to know, “is it racist if I don’t like someone who’s African American?” My first answer was no—assuming you’re not rejecting a person because of their race, you can dislike whoever you want without being racist. Of course that is true, but I told him he also needs to know this: racism can gum up the works of your intuition. Unconscious negative messages can interfere with your gut feeling about the person in front of you. You can develop strong and reliable intuition by being aware of your feelings and talking about them.

Lydia is a mixed race, Black and Jewish, gender bending young man with a large personality and a big dramatic streak. Some of the news coverage made it sound like that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. But being uncomfortable is not enough to identify a problem. You have to figure out if you are uncomfortable for the right reasons. Racism and homophobia can serve as dazzle camouflage—a cloud of confusion that an abuser can use to hide in plain sight.

It is important for kids to know that the adults in this situation know exactly what happened, without euphemisms or ambiguity. Being confused leaves too much room for excuses, minimizing, and victim blaming.

I will tell my kids this: Lydia did not deserve the trust he was given. He had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. He sent her “romantic” messages. He used the trust he had as her teacher to his own advantage. He put his own desires ahead of his responsibility not to hurt her. He knew it was wrong and he knew it was illegal. He lied about it and he asked her mother to keep it secret. If you had a feeling that Lydia was not okay, you were right. That gut feeling was right. Remember what that felt like, and practice trusting that feeling. Let’s talk about what you can do when you have that feeling again.

Other people’s business

Two of Ariel Castro’s neighbors are being held up as heroes for helping Amanda Berry escape his house after being imprisoned for over a decade. Not to take anything away from these guys, but seriously. When a woman is screaming for help and trying to break down a locked door, it doesn’t take a hero to recognize that the situation calls for action.

What’s heroic is taking action when the situation is not so clear. We’ve now heard that over those years other neighbors saw disturbing signs and called police. So why didn’t those attempts lead to their rescue?

I know from my work studying domestic violence murders that a call to the police is often not the solution. Many of the police calls prior to these murders played out just like what Ariel Castro’s neighbors described. Cops show up to a scene, knock on doors, ask questions. They don’t find evidence of a crime. Maybe they suspect something more is going on, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they write a report, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they follow up later, and maybe they don’t.

There is plenty of room to criticize the police response. But we cannot let that be the whole story. It is naive to think law enforcement can protect us from every evil, and it is dangerous to suggest they should try. Do you really want armed agents of the government empowered to break down your front door because the neighbor saw something suspicious?

The answer is much more complicated, and requires more from all of us than a 911 call. When you see a woman pounding on a window looking like she needs help—go ahead and call. But don’t stop there. Better yet, don’t start there.

Domestic violence murders have something else in common with the horror that unfolded on Seymour Avenue: deep roots. Ariel Castro had a long history of brutality against women and was apparently a victim of sexual abuse himself. His violence had scarred generations even before the kidnappings. Charles Ramsey got it right, talking about his decision to run toward the screaming and the locked door: “It’s just that you got to put that—being a coward, and ‘I don’t want to get in nobody’s business’—you got to put that away for a minute.” Getting to the roots of this kind of violence means putting those attitudes away for good.

Lessons from Penn State

We bring you this guest post from our sister coalition, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

As many of you know the jury reached a verdict in the Sandusky trial on June 22, finding him guilty on 45 of the 48 counts related to the sexual abuse of ten victims. This outcome would not have been possible without the brave testimony of the survivors in this case. We are humbled by their courage and their willingness to share their stories in order to hold Sandusky accountable and prevent the victimization of other children.

In a press conference following the verdict, Pennsylvania Attorney General, Linda Kelly, stated that “one of the recurring themes of the victims’ testimony was ‘who would believe a kid?’ And the answer is, ‘we here in Bellefonte, PA will believe a kid.'” We hope that this powerful message is heard by children and survivors in all communities. We will believe.

No safety without sovereignty

The debate in Congress is still raging over whether to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). One of the major points of conflict between the champions of the bipartisan Senate bill and the deeply flawed Republican House version is over the power Indian tribes have to investigate and prosecute domestic violence crimes.

The Senate bill would restore Indian tribes’ ability to prosecute non-Indians who assault their Indian spouses or domestic partners. Dating back to the much-criticized 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe, only the federal government can prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land. The decision was a disaster for tribes’ ability to protect their communities.

[youtube http://youtu.be/yIV7-XASQy8?t=22s]

The vast majority of violent crimes against Native women are committed by non-Indian men, and current law leaves a gaping hole in accountability for abusers and protections for victims. Tribes do not have the authority to hold these offenders accountable, and the federal government does not have the resources or the will. Federal authorities decline to prosecute 46% of assaults and 67% of sexual abuse cases in Indian country.

Violence against Native women is at epidemic levels, and has been for many years. A new CDC study shows that 46% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner. In Washington State, Native women are killed by husbands and boyfriends at nearly three times the rate of white women.

Safety for victims of violence and sovereignty for tribes go hand in hand. Some VAWA opponents are using misinformation and scare tactics to try to minimize the extent of violence against Native women and deny tribes the tools to confront it. Tuesday, June 26th will be a National Day of Action to support the real VAWA and its long overdue protections for Native women.  Make sure your representatives know where you stand.

Do you know about the Ashley Treatment?

Was your first thought a beauty treatment? Did a celebrity cross your mind—say Ashley Judd? Maybe some Ashley Judd outrage is a good idea, but it’s not what I’m talking about today. The Ashley Treatment actually consists of these steps: 1. Being given hormones at age six to stunt your growth so you will stay permanently small and easy to care for; 2. Have your breast buds and uterus removed so you can’t get pregnant or be sexually abused (How does this prevent sexual abuse??); 3. Have no say in this because you can’t give permission or even be asked if this is okay with you.

This is what happened to Ashley X and possibly 100 other children (so far). How can this happen? Because we view people with disabilities as less than human. People with disabilities rarely sit on ethics committees of hospitals. They rarely get to give input on whether to withhold, deny, or impose treatment on children and adults with disabilities. The hospital that performed the procedures on Ashley later admitted that her civil rights had been violated and agreed to make changes, including adding a person with a disability to their ethics committee and requiring a court order prior to doing this type of treatment.


What people with disabilities think about the Ashley Treatment

Disability Rights Washington and The National Disability Rights Network just released a report that uses the Ashley X decision as a case study. It asks how we can make medical decisions that “uphold the constitutional rights and inherent dignity of people with disabilities.” Everyone has the right to choose what will happen to their body—including people with disabilities, battered women, young women and men who want access to birth control. We have to believe that people are experts of their own lives and have the right to make their own decisions―even those who can’t speak for themselves.

What would our community look like if we all had the curiosity and willingness to listen to what has worked for people who’ve had experiences we haven’t had? How would things be different if people with disabilities had a leadership voice in our hospitals, schools, and communities?