Child sexual abuse is a crime whose worst enemy is open communication. To remove it from the list of taboo topics is to actively fight against its occurrence. However, for many parents, the question of how remains. With her recently published children’s book My Body Belongs to Me, Assistant District Attorney in New York City Jill Starishevsky, arms parents with a powerful preventative tool. Starishevsky has prosecuted hundreds of sex offenders and has dedicated her career to seeking justice for victims of child abuse and sex crimes.
Her inspiration to finally write the book she had been thinking about for some time came from an interview with a nine-year-old victim whose stepfather had been molesting her for three years. The young girl had finally come forward after seeing an Oprah episode about children who had been beaten. At the end of the show, Oprah Winfrey looked into the camera and said “If you are being abused, tell your parents or your teacher.” The very next day, the young girl told her teacher about the abuse. “Children don’t tell because they are afraid and embarrassed,” says Starishevsky. ” There is a silence because nobody wants to talk about it.” My Body Belongs to Me makes that silence much easier to break.
On holiday in France with her family, Jill recently took the time to talk with us about her book and the importance of breaking the silence:
You’ve mentioned that when it was time to broach this sensitive topic with your own three-year-old daughter, you looked to the existing children’s literature on this theme. What did you find lacking in those books? What oversights or corrections did you want to make sure your book addressed?
The few books that I found were lacking in many ways. Most of them had about 30-50 words on page. Most 3-year-olds do not have the attention span to sit through lengthy text with only one picture on the page. The content was also too mature and some was totally inappropriate in my opinion. For example, one of the books I came across gave examples of who might be an abuser (i.e. your father, your grandfather or your uncle). I thought this was too suggestive to read to my child and would likely frighten her. I thought it was important to convey the message that child sex abuse was not the child’s fault and that it was OK to tell a parent or teacher.
*Editor’s note: It should also be noted that Starishevsky’s main character is intentionally gender neutral. That is, when boys read the book they see a boy, and when girls read the book they see a girl.
Given that 93% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a trusted adult and that 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 4 boys will be victim to this kind of abuse, what top 3 prevention tips can you give parents short of never letting their child their of their sight?
Just as we teach children about the dangers associated with crossing the street or going near a hot oven, we must talk to them about recognizing and avoiding threatening encounters with child predators. I have a short list of “tips” that have helped me talk to my children about safety. Here are some suggestions:
1. No secrets. Period. Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way I effectuate this rule is as follows : if someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to my child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret,” I firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then I say to my child : “right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.”
2. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts. This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable.
3. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection. Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you, by doing this, you will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
How do you suggest addressing this issue without frightening your child?
Find teachable moments in your every day life and simply discuss it as you would any other safety matter. Just as we teach children how to cross the street safely and avoid frightening them about the dangers of being struck by a car, so too must we teach them about body safety. Parents should avoid bringing their own anxiety about the subject to the conversation. Children can smell fear.
In your entrepreneurial endeavors, including HowsMyNanny.com and Saftey Star Media, the publishing company you created and through which you published My Body Belongs to Me, your efforts focus largely on prevention. However in your position as New York City prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes, you are faced with children and families suffering the aftermath of these atrocities. What services are available to aid those individuals in their recovery when living abroad? In France?
That is a terrific question. In the U.S., each state has several Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) that provide services to children who have been sexually abused. There are 700 CACs in the States and they are run by the National Children’s Alliance. The NAC website has a great deal of information on line that parents may find useful. In France, victims of sexual abuse or anyone suspecting a case of child sexual abuse can call the toll-free helpline 119 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week. In addition, an indispensable resource for American victims of any form of domestic abuse is the American Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center whose founder, Paula Lucas, was herself a victim of abuse at the hands of her husband while living abroad. Their international toll-free number is 866-USWOMEN.
*Editor’s Note: See contributor Michael Barrett’s interview with Paula Lucas here.
One more question, what is your trick to finding a balance between a busy home life and a demanding professional life?
I have been asked that question often and each time my answer changes a little. I think the most important thing to remember is that family comes first. If your family is happy and healthy, then everything in your professional life somehow falls into place. I try to follow a rule my husband learned from his father. When you are in the bar be in the bar, when you are in the library, be in the library. I think he meant that if you are busy worrying about your home life while you are at work and worrying about work while you are at home, you won’t be doing either one of them very well. I also think it is helpful to maintain a sense of humor. There are no Supermen or Wonderwomen.