‘Keeping privates private,’ parents discuss preventing sexual abuse of children

  • Kathy Ortiz and Victor Machado, both of Holyoke, look over over the book "My Body Belongs To Me," an easy-to-understand picture book that parents can read to their children. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jennifer Gonzalez, second from left, of West Springfield, speaks during a "parent cafe" held to discuss what adults can do to protect their children from sexual abuse at Holyoke Public Library. Her fiance, Manuel Casiano, is beside her. Listening are Victor Machado, of Holyoke, and Rachel Dowd, of Greenfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathy Ortiz and Victor Machado, both of Holyoke, listen during a "parent cafe" held to discuss what adults can do to protect their children from sexual abuse at Holyoke Public Library. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jennifer Falcone, a social worker, speaks during a "parent cafe" held to discuss what adults can do to protect their children from sexual abuse at Holyoke Public Library. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Parents who attended the session recently held at the Holyoke Public Library were given copies of the book "My Body Belongs To Me." GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jennifer Gonzalez of West Springfield, and her finace, Manuel Casiano, were among those who attended the "parent cafe" at Holyoke Public Library. Similar meetings are planned for Ludlow and Springfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jennifer Falcone, a social worker, is one of the organizers of a series of parent, meetings, sponsored by the Prevention Collaboration of the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, to discuss what adults can do to protect their children from sexual abuse. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jennifer Gonzalez, of West Springfield, speaks during a "parent cafe" held to discuss what adults can do to protect their children from sexual abuse at Holyoke Public Library. Her fiance, Manuel Casiano, is beside her. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/10/2017 3:11:24 PM

 By LISA SPEAR

When a school administrator touched a private area on Jennifer Falcone’s body nearly three decades ago, she didn’t know how to tell her parents.

“I had no word. I didn’t know I had anything down there that no one was supposed to touch,” she said.

Falcone was 11 at the time, yet, she says, her parents had never taught her the names of her genitals.

Over a three-year period, the administrator would regularly pull her out of gym class, and take her into an empty office and assault her. 

She didn’t tell anyone. 

“I was terrified of my abuser and believed him that it was my fault and that no one would take my word over his.”

Falcone, who is now 39 and a social worker based in Springfield, was at the Holyoke Public Library last week volunteering her time to talk with parents about the sexual abuse of children. She is part of a group of doctors and other health care professionals taking part in a series of public conversations to advise adults on how they can recognize and stop such abuse. The series, sponsored by the Prevention Collaboration, a community -based group organized out of the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, is called the Parent Café: Keeping Privates Private. It is being held in education centers and public libraries throughout Hampden County during April.

Falcone’s abuse finally stopped when a new gym teacher was hired during eighth grade, and, sensing something was wrong, refused to let the administrator take Falcone out of class.

“Her willingness to stand up to him scared him enough that he physically left me alone after that, even though he continued to torment me until I graduated from that school,” she said.  

As an adult, Falcone said, she slowly realized the enormity of what had happened. She contacted the district attorney's office in eastern Massachusetts, where she grew up, to no avail.

“They took a very superficial look at things, but I didn’t have any evidence,” she said.

Awareness is key

These days the issue is more widely discussed, parents, teachers and other supervising adults are more aware and the reporting of such incidents has increased. But, there is still much work to be done, Falcone said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before they turn 18.

Throughout Hampshire and Franklin Counties, there were 411 cases referred to the Northwestern District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit for investigation last year, involving 535 victims, according to a statement from spokeswoman Mary Carey. 

The first step to shrinking these statistics is communication, Falcone said.

“This is a topic that takes some courage as a parent,” she told the group at the meeting in Holyoke.

 Even if no abuse is suspected, parents should start talking to their children about sexuality early, making sure they know that parts of their bodies are private, she said, and that there are official names for them. 

Giving children the language to express themselves is key to preventing abuse, said Dr. Stephen Boos, the co-medical director at the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital who has been treating sexually abused children for years. He is one of the organizers of the Parent Cafe program. He was not at the Holyoke session, but, in an interview later, he said that parents should begin using the words penis and vagina when their children are still in diapers.

“If you don’t have a word that another person can understand how can they tell that something happened?”

Broaching the subject

Noting that the topic can be awkward, one mother at the talk asked Falcone for tips on broaching sexual issues with children.

Falcone suggested that those who feel embarrassed might consider practicing privately first. She also advised that parents gauge how much information to dispense depending on the child’s readiness, which is different for each youngster. It is important not to scare kids, she said, just make them aware.

Conversations about sexuality can start with simply having a child color in the bathing suit areas of people in a coloring book, Falcone said. For some kids, a brief talk will suffice initially. As the child gets older, details can be increased.

“Child sexual abuse prevention is a life-long discussion, not a one-time talk,” she said. 

Telling a child to fight off an attacker is OK, she said, but noted that an adult can easily overpower most children. Plus, she said, “most sexual abuse builds up over time with the abuser building tolerance to more and more intimate touches.”

Falcone cautioned the parents not to jump to conclusions if they suspect abuse. Don’t push the child beyond what he or she is ready to tell you and don’t cast blame, she said. Calmly ask the child open-ended questions.

An example, says Boos, could be: Is there anything that bothered you when you were with ... ?

If parents suspect something inappropriate might have happened at school, they shouldn’t hesitate to contact the principal or the superintendent, he says. 

Those who suspect abuse also can call The Baystate Family Advocacy Center (BFAC) to speak with a social worker, who can walk them through how to talk to their children. 

If the parent is certain abuse has occurred, he or she can call the Department of Child and Family Services, and the agency will investigate.

If the child is in immediate danger, if the abuser lives in the child’s house, call the police, says Boos.

Above all, it is also important for parents to listen to their children, don’t pretend the abuse didn’t happen. Be willing to talk about it, but don’t force it, Falcone said,

Finding help

When Falcone was abused, she had no one to speak with and had to suffer alone, she said. She struggled to sleep at night, stopped eating and wrestled with anxiety. 

Only when she reached her 30s was she able to open up about what happened to her. Once her two sons, now 11 and 9, got close to school age she started to be overwhelmed by flashbacks.

“Working with an excellent therapist helped me recover,” she said. “I allowed myself to experience all the emotions that were unsafe to feel at the time, especially rage.”

She talked with friends and family, started journaling and recording everything she remembered.

“I explored and solidified my spirituality by reading and talking to others. I got involved in prevention efforts locally as a way to feel like I was better protecting my kids and as a way to heal myself,” Falcone said.

“I absolutely decided to go into social work as a part of my healing process.”

Unexpected danger

Falcone pointed out that the man who hurt her was a trusted person abusing his power. Likewise, she said, sexual predators are often people the children know.

One parent in the group said those words rang true for her.

She said she was shocked to learn recently that the teenage son of a close family friend had molested her very young daughter. The boy, she said, had been like a son to her, and had known her child since the girl was a baby.

“They knew each other their entire life, they treated each other like brother and sister,” she said.

The incident happened at the friend’s house: adults talked in the living room, while the kids played in the kitchen. Later, her daughter told her what had happened.

“I didn’t know how to react,” she said. 

But she called the Department of Children and Family Services to report the incident. Then she called the police. 

“Who am I going to trust now?” she asked, her voice cracking as she began to cry.

“It is absolutely devastating to learn that this has happened to your child but what I can tell you is, your child can be OK,” Falcone said.

She advises that adults seek therapy for their abused children, but also that they take care of themselves. 

One way is to join a support group like the one held at the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital for parents of children who are survivors of sexual assault.

“Keep empowering yourself by getting more information,” she said.

She passed out copies of the book “My Body Belongs to Me,” an easy to understand picture book that parents can read to their children.

She also suggested the book “The Parents Guide to Talking About Sex.”

“There are so many resources out there, if we are not afraid to go out and look for it,” she says.

“I was horrifically sexually abused as a child. ... it messed me up for a long time, but I am great now. I got help.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

Getting help

If you suspect that a child is being abused and want to speak to a social worker, contact the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, at baystatehealth.org/bch or call 794-9816.

Upcoming Parent Cafes: Keeping Privates Private

April 26

5:30 to 7 p.m.

Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start

54 Winsor St., Ludlow 

April 27

4 to 6 p.m. 

Early Childhood

Education Center

15 Catharine St., Springfield




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy