It’s never too early to teach children the proper names of their body parts — and that some of them are private.
Start when they the children still in diapers, advises Dr. Stephen Boos, co-medical director at the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield. That makes it easier for little ones to tell adults if something bad happens to them.
That’s good advice because, unfortunately, bad things happen to kids more often than we’d like to believe.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they are 18. In Hampshire and Franklin counties, there were 411 cases, involving 535 victims, referred to the Northwestern District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit for investigation last year.
Jennifer Falcone was a child growing up in eastern Massachusetts who did not have the language or the understanding of what was happening to her when a school administrator started molesting her more than two decades ago. She suffered in silence for years, not able to articulate the experience until she was an adult.
Finally able to find relief from the traumatic aftermath, she was inspired to become a social worker and is now based in Springfield. Now she, Boos and a team of other health care professionals are holding what they call parent cafes at libraries and education centers throughout Hampden County to help protect children. They had their first session in Holyoke earlier in April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month.
On April 7, donors gathered for a fundraising breakfast to benefit the Children’s Advocacy Center in Northampton. That center, along with its counterpart in Franklin County, is a nonprofit providing a homelike space where abused children can tell professionals what happened to them. The children also can have forensic examinations and mental health evaluations there, and get referrals for other services.
The keynote speaker was Donna Lloyd, who helped two young girls get the help they needed after one was raped and the other indecently assaulted by their mother’s boyfriend. Lloyd took the children to the advocacy center in Franklin County for support that helped them through the court process, which ended with their tormenter’s conviction. He was sentenced to serve between 20 and 25 years in jail.
Though the children were frightened, Lloyd said, one of the girls told her that describing to compassionate listeners what happened was “like taking a weight off my shoulders.”
Communication is crucial, Falcone told the parents she met at the Holyoke Library. She acknowledged that discussing sex can be difficult for some. She suggested that practicing beforehand might help. She noted that children are ready for certain pieces of information at different stages and, gauging their reactions, parents can provide a little at a time.
Falcone had other good tips, too, stressing that the point is to not scare kids, just to make them aware. She pointed out that, as was the case with her, an abuser often is someone the child knows and trusts.
Help is also available from the Baystate Family Advocacy Center in Springfield where a social worker can guide a parent through difficult conversations. And there are support groups available as well.
A parent’s well-being is essential to the child’s, Boos says. “If you fall apart, your child is not going to get better.”
Two more parent cafes are planned, at 5:30 p.m. April 26 at the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start in Ludlow, and at 4 p.m. April 27 at the Early Childhood Education Center in Springfield.
Awareness of sexual abuse has come a long way since Falcone’s tragic childhood. She says she has recovered and turned her focus not only to her two sons, who are 11 and 9, but to other children as well. She is brave to tell her story publicly, providing a strong example of how such openness shines a light on how abuse unfolds and the damage it causes.