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Challenge: Digging Deep

How to imagine the unimaginable

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It's mid-morning, and you're a thousand miles away from home when your phone rings. The caller ID tells you it’s your kids' school, and your stomach drops. It’s been a week since Parkland, and only two days since the police declared a lockdown at your kids’ school after a credible threat was phoned in.

In a minute, you’ll find out that this isn’t that worst nightmare. It’s a different one.

You’ll turn your car around and drive back to the airport to catch the next flight home, and you’ll forget to eat both lunch and dinner because you’re using the entirety of your brain to try to make sense of what you’ve just heard. You’ll arrive back home after everyone is asleep, then lie awake for hours cycling through blame, laying it at the feet of each person you know before dismissing that possibility and moving on to the next. A kind child psychologist will spend hours on the phone with you, letting you ramble through each hypothetical, and offering sound wisdom on how to talk to your child in a way that won’t alarm him.

In the morning, when your six-year old wakes up, you’ll ask him casually, “Have you ever heard of this game called ‘privates’?”

You know he knows what it is, because he told another child at school that he’s played this game — one where you take off your underpants — with a babysitter. He’ll shake his head no and drop his head to his pillow. You’ll gently press on, asking if a grownup has ever asked to see his private parts. In answer, his eyes will squeeze shut, and he’ll shake his head harder. You’ll hope with a fierce desperation that he’s telling the truth, even though your gut is screaming that something is very, very wrong.

In a few days, you’ll strike up an after-dinner conversation about “body safety,” because you’ve been scouring the internet looking for the answers your six-year old isn’t capable of giving you. You’ll gently probe about his friends, and a slow story will begin to pour out about two of his classmates who played a game about private parts with a babysitter. But you’ll know it isn’t about his classmates — it’s about him — because he’ll offer a startling level of detail, from the time of day it happened to the car she drives to where precisely in the house they were. When he tells you it happened in the bedroom, he’ll point directly upward. (That’s where his bedroom is.) A few moments later, he’ll say, “I think it is going to happen again here.” The word here is mumbled with his face pointing downward, but there’s no mistaking what he’s said.

You’ll think, “I’ve dropped into the middle of an episode of Law and Order SVU,” and — disassociating yourself — you’ll marvel at the psychological phenomenon of disassociation that you read about in college. You’ll step outside of your own body and watch yourself talking to your son, battling between the drive to want to keep him talking and learn as much as possible and the knowledge that nothing he’s telling you is reliable, because he’s a child and you’re his mother whom he loves and wants to please.

When he goes upstairs to bed, you’ll scurry off to your computer to write down your contemporaneous recollection of everything he’s said. You’ll forever think of it as your “Comey memo,” and you’ll call it that when you’re trying to introduce some levity into this horrible situation.

You’ll wake up in the morning, get your kids off to school like normal, then spend the rest of your day holed up at home on the phone with detectives, psychologists, a child abuse expert, and the school counselor. You’ll make countless excuses to your work colleagues on this day and for many days and weeks to come, walking the tightrope between vague and ominous. Your aim is to preemptively shut down inquiry, because at the end of this all, it’s not your story to tell. It’s your kid’s, if and when he ever wants to tell it.

At the school counselor’s urging, you’ll tentatively explain to your child’s teacher what has happened, and she’ll cry with you. She’ll pause for a moment, then tell you that your child wrote down the word C-L-I-T when tasked with generating a list of words that rhyme with “it.” You’ll feel like you might throw up.

The next few days will pass by in a fugue, every fiber in your body clenched in anticipation of your child’s imminent forensic interview. When the time comes, he’ll hesitantly enter an unadorned room with an investigator. (You’ll find out that the room is bare of any toys or games because to prosecute effectively, there can’t be any element of fantasy in the room.) You won’t be allowed to be present or watch, but the two detectives assigned to your case will observe a live video feed of the interview from another room.

You’ll pass the next 75 minutes in a room with a warm and solicitous woman whose job appears to be helping parents survive their child’s forensic interview. You’ll wonder if part of her role is to gauge parents’ reactions to identify if one is a perpetrator, because after all, the majority of child sexual abuse is committed by a relative.

This thought will send you again down the spiral of blame and doubt, and you’ll wonder — not for the last time — when you’ll stop assessing everyone around you to figure out if they’re a child molester.

When the detectives and investigator finally return, they’ll tell you that your son didn’t disclose anything about a babysitter or abuse. You’ll walk out of the building feeling worse than you did walking in, not just because the uncertainty and cloudiness are wrenching but also because you’ve just seen in real time how easy it is for predators to get away with child abuse.

While the details will be different, here’s what I now know that I didn’t know before:

Something like this will happen to the child of someone you know.

And you’ll probably never hear about it.

In fact, you might know me. You won’t hear this story from me, though, because it belongs to my son. I can’t tell you this story with my name attached to it, as much as I yearn for the release of confessing this awfulness. I’m trapped on a tightrope, weighted down on one side by my drive to warn you, and weighted on the other side by my instinct to insulate my kid from other people knowing that he was abused.

Because I need to protect my kid, I can’t tell you who I am, or where this happened, or who the person is who might have done it. (The last piece is especially complex; we have more than one babysitter and my son never named names, so there are several possibilities.)

I can tell you what I’ve learned.

One in three girls and one in six boys will be the victim of child sexual abuse by the time they’re eighteen.

One in three girls, and one in six boys. Those numbers run in my head like a mantra now. One-in-three-girls-and-one-in-six-boys.

That’s the first and most important thing to know: child sexual abuse is not rare. It’s easy to believe it’s rare, because it’s rare to hear about child sexual abuse. It’s not rare. One-in-three-girls-and-one-in-six-boys. It’s common.

What else you should know:

  1. 50% of child sexual abusers will commit their first offense by the time they’re 18. If you’re thinking to yourself, “We’re fine. The only people who watch our kids are high school girls,” you’re wrong.
  2. On girls (and women), and the perception that they aren’t perpetrators of sexual abuse, you’re also wrong. What we know about reported cases of child sexual abuse is that the perpetrators are usually (but not always) male. We know virtually nothing about unreported cases. Let me give you this hypothetical: a babysitter asks your young son if he knows what a girl’s privates look like. He shakes his head no. She continues, “Do you want to see?” If he’s intrigued enough to say yes (and many boys would be), and he finds the experience a little thrilling (as some boys would), would he tell you about it? That’s one of the ways it can happen. That’s how women can get away with child sexual abuse.
  3. Even if a child reports the abuse (and that is a significant if), the child then has to detail the sexual abuse to a forensic investigator. They call it “disclosing,” as in, “He didn’t disclose,” which is what the forensic investigator told me and my husband after spending 75 minutes behind closed doors with our child. The detective we’d been working with called the next day to tell us they were closing our case. Poof. Done.
  4. False reports are highly, highly unusual. That was the first question we asked a child psychologist after hearing from the school counselor: “How often is something like this true?” Her answer was that it is very, very often true. Children don’t invent stories about sexual abuse. It doesn’t exist within the realms of their imaginations.

Child sexual abuse is not rare. One in three girls and one in six boys.

The second most important thing you need to hear is that predators know prey. My therapist told me this, and I bristled at it. Did I make my children into prey?

Well, no. Not intentionally. But I didn’t do a great job at making it clear that they’re not prey.

I wore as a badge of honor my ability to be relaxed about childcare; I wasn’t paralyzed with anxiety about leaving my child in the hands of a capable adult. I’d mentally roll my eyes at parents who were skittish about leaving their kids with a sitter. We proudly boasted a roster of a half dozen experienced, confident college students who my kids adored.

One of those college students (and we still aren’t sure which one) picked up on how trusting we were. She probably started by gently pushing boundaries, to test how compliant my son was in keeping secrets, all the while gauging how tuned in we were. She was likely quick to figure out that my sweet, sensitive son was very compliant, and that we weren’t closely paying attention. He was easy prey.

He’s not anymore, nor is my daughter. We’re taking a two-sided approach to protecting them: we’re teaching them about their bodies and privacy and secrets, and we’re broadcasting to every adult and teenager around them that we’re vigilant and alert.

I can’t talk about this with my closest friends. But if I could talk to you — on the playground, over coffee, on a text message thread — about what happened to my child, this is what I’d tell you:

  1. Body safety” is a concept you need to instill into your child as routinely as you teach them not to touch a hot stove or to look both ways before crossing the street. If you introduce it early enough, it won’t even register to them as novel or unusual.
  2. This includes equipping your child to talk about all of their body parts, which means naming them with their anatomically correct names, like vulva and anus. If you’re as squeamish about those words as I was, two things to remember: 1) to your child, learning those words is no different than learning your elbow is the part of your arm that’s pointy and 2) if something does happen to your child, these are the words she needs so she can tell you — and so you can stop it from happening again. This book has been immensely helpful in talking to our kids about their bodies.
  3. Another one to instill and get comfortable repeating: Your penis/vagina/anus/breasts are private parts. No one touches your private parts except you, unless you need help cleaning them or a doctor needs to check to see if they’re healthy. And no one should ever make you or ask you to touch private parts. Also be sure your children understand that children do not get in trouble if someone has broken the body safety rules.
  4. Avoid phrases like “good touch” and “bad touch,” because sometimes “bad touch” feels good. Experts advise wording like “OK touch” and “Not OK touch” to separate out sensation from safety. “Sometimes ‘bad touch’ feels good” is my euphemistic and squirmy way of telling you that your child may experience molestation as pleasurable. (I will add: it made me so deeply uncomfortable to type those words, because they conjure something that’s both horrible to imagine and true.)
  5. No secrets. “We don’t keep secrets in our family” needs to be as fundamental as “We don’t hit.” We’ve eliminated from our vernacular phrases like “Don’t tell mommy/daddy…” that were about delightfully illicit things like drive-thru doughnuts instead of breakfast or three days without a bath. No secrets. (Surprises are different than secrets; they’re only temporary.)
  6. As parents, we need to unambiguously communicate to everyone around our children that we are alert and vigilant and OUR CHILDREN ARE NOT PREY. It means having conversations that feel awkward or uncomfortable. Trust me that it is more uncomfortable to have to explain to your child’s kindergarten teacher that you believe he has been sexually abused.
  7. Tell everyone, “We’re teaching our kids body safety rules.” Tell them that you teach your children that private parts are private, and you would like them to reinforce that rule with them. Explain that your children do not keep secrets, even harmless ones like having ice cream twice in one day or staying up past bedtime. Underscore this last part: “Our kids do not keep secrets from us.”
  8. In our family, we are telling all future babysitters that we run background checks. We’re putting up a sign in the kids’ bathroom that lists our body safety rules in kid-friendly language. (Ours include: I’m the boss of my body; no one touches my private parts but me; we keep our clothes on except when washing; and NO secrets. If you want a quick-and-easy version, you can download one here.) Make clear to everyone around your children that you are vigilant and your kids are forthright and aware of boundaries.
  9. You need to have this conversation with everyone. Everyone everyone everyone everyone everyone. I thought we were safe with our energetic, bubbly, college-girl babysitters. I was wrong. Have this conversation with the adults at school (teachers, aides, principals, tutors), babysitters, your parents and in-laws, your siblings and cousins, camp counselors, parents of your kids’ friends (yes, all of your kids’ friends), and every other adult or teenager who has access to your kids. Aim for the conversational equivalent of a tattoo on your face that says MY KIDS ARE NOT PREY.
  10. Teach your children that if another child tells them about someone breaking body safety rules, they should tell you. Be sure to reinforce again that children don’t get in trouble if someone has broken body safety rules. I am so deeply and unspeakably grateful to the parents whose daughter spoke up about what she heard from my son. If she hadn’t, we might never have known — and it might still be going on. That little girl has likely changed the trajectory of my little boy’s life by being brave and smart and understanding the kind of touch that’s not OK.

If you’re panicking right now about the things you haven’t done, I’ll tell you what the child abuse expert told us: It’s never too late to start doing any of this. We’re doubly focused on these things now because we know that children who have been abused are at a higher risk for further sexual abuse.

For us, for now, we continue to live in the unknown. We’ve just started what our child’s psychologist calls “an intensive,” which means we take him to therapy three or more times a week. In our first meeting, she told us that it’s possible that we’ll never know any of the specifics of what happened. She explained that children are able to work through trauma in their play. Even if he never directly recounts the details of something that happened, he can still heal from it if he’s given the space and encouragement to experience and explore different types of feelings. I can only hope she’s right.

And as for me: I’m working my way through the five stages of grief, cycling back through denial and anger from time to time. Writing this down has been a big step toward acceptance, and I’m hopeful that doing so is going to help spare another parent, and another child, what we’re living through.

I’ve written this because I can’t say it out loud to you; I can’t send you an email to warn you. I have to protect my kid. But I want you to be able to protect your kid too, because terrible things can happen if we believe they’re not possible.

One in three girls and one in six boys.

The only way we’ll ever start to change that is by talking about it.

Editor's note: TODAY has been in touch with the author of this post. As indicated here, she wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her child.

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