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Child Abuse Awareness

April is child abuse awareness and prevention month. Sadly, recent data published by the Texas Department of Family Protective Services revealed that in FY2018 there were 211 child fatalities from abuse or neglect in Texas, a 35% increase from 5 years ago. Over half of these 211 child fatalities, were children under the age of 2. Locally, there were 45 child fatalities from abuse or neglect in Harris County in FY2018, of which 20 of these children were under the age of 2.

Children under the age of 2 are at the greatest risk of being victims of child maltreatment. Parental stress, sleep deprivation, and depression coupled with infant crying is a risk factor for abuse. As a result, organizations across the county and state have invested in efforts to protect these vulnerable children. For example, Texas Children’s Hospital provides education to new parents and caregivers on infant crying and soothing through the Period of Purple Crying Program. The purpose of this educational intervention is to normalize infant crying so parents and caregivers are aware, as well as to prepare them with tools and coping strategies for soothing their baby and handling frustrations around crying. Texas Children’s collaborates with other community hospitals to deliver the Period of Purple Crying Program to new parents delivering babies and to parents with children in the neonatal intensive care unit.

If Hollywood was your only source of information about babies, you may think that most of their time is spent in peaceful slumber or cooing happily. The reality is babies cry – some cry a lot – and they cry for many reasons.

As with most things, there is a range of frequency and intensity. We know infant crying typically peaks around 8 weeks of life and usually starts to taper by 16 weeks of life. We also know babies tend to be fussy and cry more in the early evening. As parents are settling into their new roles, perhaps returning to work and caring for other children, this time can be challenging. And, if coupled with sleep deprivation, parental stress, anxiety or depression, it can be even more difficult.

Newborns communicate their needs through crying. They could be hungry, sleepy, not feeling well or need a diaper change. As a parent, you might think you’ll know exactly what to do to soothe your baby and stop the crying. But there will be times you won’t know the cause of the crying and despite your best efforts, may not be able to remedy the crying. You can comfort your crying baby by taking them outside, singing, rocking them or rubbing his/her back and while that may not stop the crying, it lets the baby know you are with them. However, we know parents and caregivers can become so frustrated with infant crying they lose control and, without thinking, shake or hurt the baby. If you find yourself really frustrated with the crying, it is OK to put the baby in a safe place, a crib without toys, pillows or blankets, and take a short break to breathe and calm yourself or ask for someone to come help with the baby. It is never OK to shake or hurt a baby. Remember babies cry and sometimes they are not consolable, but that is not a reflection of you as a parent. Also know you are the person who knows your baby best and if something is concerning or seems out of the ordinary, you can call your health care provider.

Teen Dating Violence

When we think of February, I think of love… hearts… red and pink… all things Valentine’s Day, right?  Yes!  But, in that mist of all things ‘relationship,’ we fail to give light to those in unhealthy and often abusive situations.  As such, it’s vital to note that February serves as the designated awareness month for Teen Dating Violence and we proudly wear the color orange in support of teen survivors.

A staggering 1 in 3 teens will experience a form of abuse in a dating relationship.  Defined as the physical, psychological, emotional, and/or sexual violence occurring either in person or electronically, teen dating violence is a rampant issue in our community.  More important to bring attention to is the notion that only 33% of teens in abusive relationship ever tell about the abuse they are experiencing!

Being a teen is not easy!  So many coming-of-age challenges and social pressures make life hard for teens in both their real and online lives.  And, while our teens need us more than ever to help them through this challenging time, they are also seeking independence and turning to peers. Although it may seem easier to let a teen “ghost” you, hang on and start some of those difficult conversations about healthy relationships.  Below are some tips (adapted from Futures Without Violence) to start that chat:

  • Encourage open, honest and thoughtful reflection. Talk openly with young teens about healthy relationships. Allow them to articulate his or her values and expectations for healthy relationships. Rather than dismissing ideas as “wrong”, encourage debate —this helps young people come to his or her own understanding.
  • Understand teen development. Adolescence is all about experimentation. From mood swings to risk taking, “normal teenage behavior” can appear anything-but-normal. New research, however, reveals that brain development during these formative years play a significant role in young teen’s personality and actions. Knowing what’s “normal” is critical to helping you better understand and guide young people.
  • Understand the pressure and the risk teen’s face. Preteens and young teens face new and increasing pressures about sex, substance abuse and dating. Time and time again, young teens express their desire to have parents/role models take the time to listen to them and help them think through the situations they face – be that person!
  • Make the most of “teachable moments.” Use TV episodes, movies, music lyrics, news, community events or the experiences of friends to discuss healthy and unhealthy relationships.
  • Be prepared to make mistakes. You will make mistakes. Accept that you will make mistakes, but continue to help teens make responsible choices while trying to maintain that delicate balance of being sensitive, but firm.

For more info or support, please call the 24/7 HAWC hotline at 713.528.2121

Monitoring Kids’ Technology Use at School

In today’s digital world, savvy parents do everything they can to protect their children online: we follow their social media or even forbid them from joining social media altogether; we check privacy settings; monitor internet usage through wireless routers or downloadable software; we keep the family computer in a central location and have age-appropriate and reoccurring conversations about being good digital citizens, online reputation and the dangers of the Internet.

We try to take control of the gadgets we own and how they impact our children . . .  but what if they have access to the online world through devices not given to them by us? Devices we have no control of?

This week’s tragic story – Cy-Fair officer in training arrested after allegedly luring 12-year-old girl to Cypress hotel room – made us wonder. She’s only 12 years old but this Houston girl left her home willingly, at midnight, to meet a man she connected with via the popular social media app “MeetMe.” Here’s the issue: she was accessing the app through the iPad given to her by her school. Of course, upon meeting Jorge Bastida, she was allegedly sexually assaulted. Thankfully, authorities located her in a motel shortly after.

The reality that this young girl met this online predator through a school-provided iPad is terrifying. This got us thinking about the devices many schools provide their students, what security measures school administration takes to protect students, and what that means for parents who have no access or control over their child’s online behavior at school.

Do you know?

On the one hand, we are thankful for schools who invest in technology and offer it to students. Studies show there are a lot of positives in utilizing technology in the classroom, yielding a tremendous impact on teaching, learning and student development. A recent survey conducted by THEJournal revealed that 75 percent of participating teachers believed that technology had a positive impact on education. An overwhelming 81 percent of teachers favored the idea of schools providing devices to all students with nearly 50 percent saying that students at their schools had 1-to-1 devices. And these devices are needed. According to The Edvocate, nearly 60 percent of administrators say they have implemented some form of mobile technology in classrooms as 96 percent “believe technology will have a positive role to play in education in the future.”

But just because the technology is meant for education does not mean kids won’t exploit it, especially in homes where parents are stricter or on top of social media risks. Paired with some alarming statistics and the need for discussion becomes clear:

  • Teens are willing to meet with strangers: 16 percent of teens considered meeting someone they’ve only talked to online and 8 percent have actually met someone they only knew online.
  • 75 percent of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services.
  • One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet says they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web (only 25 percent of those told a parent).

What’s a Parent to do?

Start asking questions and stay informed.

  • Does your school give your child access to online world?
  • Do they allow your child to bring their own electronic device?
  • Do they provide devices for students?
  • Do you know your school’s policy and the measurements they take to safeguard school given electronic devices?
  • Do they block all platforms or just a few?
  • Are there ways for students to get around this or cheat the system?
  • I’m sure there are location services with the gadgets. Given that your kids keep these at school and at home, can a predator track the gadget and your child?

Don’t be afraid to ask the school pointed questions. Talk to your children too. In this new world of immediate gratification and hyper-sexualization, these are important concerns that every parent must consider. Their safety depends on it.

Ford v. Kavanaugh and Talking to Your Child About Consent

Like so many, I spent Thursday watching as much of the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford andJustice Brett Kavanaugh hearings as I could. I am sure all those in that room would say it was emotional, frustrating and draining. But as the nation focused on the testimonies and pulled from all the recent headlines of the past, my mind wandered to the next generation, to our children and the reality that there are boys and girls – today – who are unknowingly making decisions (today) that will impact their lives 20 to 40 years from now. How do we guide teens through the significance of this?

Add to that a long conversation I had with a mom of two boys who spoke of the fear she feels raising sons in the wake of the #metoo, #womenempowerment era. On the one hand, she’s 100 percent in support of boys at all ages being held accountable for their actions. She repeatedly tells her sons: You do something inappropriate, it’s on you, forever and period. No excuses. On the other hand, she shared her sons’ real concerns that a mutual encounter, a moment that truly felt like agreement, could later turn into a “he said / she said” that could impact their lives forever.

It was a deeply packed conversation filled with true confusion and concern. What she was asking and what we should all be asking is: How do we raise minors to understand the gravity of it all and is there a guide for parents?

Yes, here’s a start:

  • Move Away from Dismissive Language: As a society, let’s move away from “boys will be boys.” The statement itself is filled with excuses. No more. Why not one standard for all, reflected in our everyday conversations? Neither age nor gender is an excuse. Neither is social status nor connections. But beware, to really do this requires a review of our own social and gender biases (the very same ones that our kids pick up on).
  • There’s Accountability for all when the Rules are Gender Neutral: When it comes to how to treat one another and how to carry ourselves, the rules are the same for all. Boys need to respect themselves and the girls around them. Girls need to respect themselves and the boys around them. Period. The traditional imbalance of power which has historically infiltrated the imbalance in standards must be eradicated, one person at a time.
  • Consent and Boundaries Start on the Playground: They are lessons to be taught as early as possible and in explained in all situations. “Do you want to play ball with me? Yes? Okay! No? Understood.” Consent is also about the boundaries we set up for ourselves while respecting those set up by others. Talk through boundaries, personal ones and those of others. “What makes you feel uncomfortable? What might make others feel uncomfortable?” Go through age-appropriate scenarios.
  • Not Fear but Honesty: If we can communicate and connect while knowing, understanding and respecting each other’s boundaries and with a clear understanding of consent, interactions do not need to be fearful. That said, adding alcohol or drugs to any situation negates your ability to do any of this. What does it not negate? The wishes of the person with you and the legal consequences of your actions.
  • Time is a Continuum on which Actions Live: No matter your age today, your actions stick with you for decades to come, especially in the world of social media and online living. Our jokes and comments, our games, our dares, our partying, our socializing, our dating, our emails, our texts … all of it, have significance permanently. Discuss what permanent means and remember, age and gender are not an excuse.
  • Expectations in Relationships Defined: What do healthy relationships look like, what do you expect and allow? Friendships, dating relationships, work relationships, school partnerships, teacher-student, etc… have a healthy discussion about them all.
  • Emotions Matter: All our children need to be raised with empathy, in an emotionally safe and secure manner, thinking through how to view themselves and others. A great exercise: make a list of five or ten friends in your child’s life and talk through how your child feels about each (“CLAUDIA: I really like Claudia, she’s very smart”); then discuss how that friend might feel about your child (“CLAUDIA: She might not like me, I joke about her work a lot”); then how that friend might feel about him/herself right now (“Come to think of it, she’s been sad at school lately”). It’s a great exercise that gets kids thinking and connecting emotions and actions to outcomes.
  • Examples Matter: Dad, you matter. Brother, you matter. Sister, you matter. Mom, you matter. TV shows matter. Songs matter. Kids watch it all, hear it all and pick up on everything. Do an inventory of the things shaping your child and talk them through. (Side note, have you stopped to read some to the lyrics of today’s most popular songs? They’re not good.)
  • Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Period. When someone says stop and you say “Ok” while pushing a little more or trying a little harder, your actions will be what defined the moment.
  • Outcries Will be Heard: Period. While my sincerest hope is that the sexual assault of all can just end, it’s critical we raise a generation not afraid to speak up. If anything happens to you, you must report and as quickly as you possibly can. In the midst of the trauma, try to remember anything possible and write it down as soon as possible. Go straight to a hospital if you can. If you can’t, place everything you were wearing in a separate bag. This is such a horrible reality but one we must face. To the child, teen or young person, the trauma is unimaginable but culturally, we are primed to hear you and listen. Add to that, the person you become may very much want to hold your attacker accountable. The world may need to hold your attacker accountable. Be strong. Report. Many are with you.

For today’s families, the conversations are absolutely about an equitable society, believing outcries, and raising our kids right. We love our boys, we love our girls and we love yours too. If we’re all on the same page, we’ll get through this.

Welcome to Houston! (Excuse the Sign for the Sex Robot Brothel…)

I thought I had seen just about everything when the headline hit me: Sex Robot Brothel Planned for Houston Gets Pushback…. How did we get here as a society? That was my first thought. But I quickly dove into all the incredibly complex issues this topic represents. Sex Robot Brothels… What is this exactly? Is there a market for it? What does the law say? How is anyone for this? What can we do because we all know once the door opens, there is very little turning back.

Global Market

A global market exists for sex robot brothels and sex robots generally. Defined as the use of artificial intelligent robots who can both arouse and satisfy sexual needs, they are gaining in popularity. One can find these brothels across Europe and in Canada.

Given that there is a constant demand for sex coupled with a new world of immediate gratification, the robots are money-makers gaining the attention of business owners who don’t care about their negative effects on our society. KinkySdollsS, an Ontario-based business, currently offers customers the option to rent realistic sex robots in intervals of 30 ($60) or 60 minutes ($100) with a life-sized doll that’s “warm and ready to play.” 

It gets worse. By 2020, 10 US cities are slated to have sex robot brothels lining their city streets with the owner of KinkySdollS choosing Houston as one of the first locations. The new brothel is set to open very soon and offer both on-site and at-home rentals.

The Law

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Locally – the sex robot rental business does not appear to violate any currently enforceable laws in Texas. Beyond Texas, there are currently no regulations on sex robots in the United States.

Nationally – federal law contains vague restrictions on interstate commerce in indecent material, and furthermore defines “indecent” as something that exceed subjective local standards. Houston friends – this begs the question – what are our local standards? Why was Houston chosen as one of the launch cities for the United States? This has me deeply concerned and frustrated by what it says for and about our city’s culture.

What about buying or selling sex toys? Let’s start with this: The Supreme Court protects the private possession of obscene pornography but not the act of receiving it. That said, the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether there is a right to buy sex toys.

Locally, a ban on selling these items existed in Texas until 2008, when the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Texas law which had previously made it illegal to sell or promote obscene devices (sex toys). Their reasoning? It violated the right to privacy guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

While the Law Plays Catch-Up, What about Morality and Regulations?

While it wouldn’t be where I’d start, the regulations right now are focused primarily on consumer safety and public health. It appears the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) enforces standards for some parts that may go into robots generally but has no apparent rules for sexbots beyond standards related to their parts like batteries, and the artificial intelligence system itself.

For me, the bigger issues stem around the morality of it all. Specifically:

  • What about regulations on the age and appearance of these dolls? What age do these dolls have to appear? Can child-like dolls exist? This last June, House lawmakers unanimously passed the CREEPER Act by Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., which sought to ban importation and interstate commerce involving “any child sex doll.” The Senate has yet to act on the House Bill. Donovan said in a statement that his bill would “help better protect innocent children from predators” and urged the Senate “to follow the House’s lead and swiftly pass this legislation that would benefit our communities.”
  • What about regulations pertaining to what can be done to the robots? Does anything go once you have your rental? Anything at all? Think about this; it’s a very important question.
  • What about the robot’s responses? You may think this is a strange question but it’s not. Think this through with me. If this is a business-driven model and consumers (buyers/renters) want dolls to cry or seem fearful, why wouldn’t sellers program their dolls accordingly? And what effects will this have on a user in everyday society? This is a huge issue for those concerned with the ramifications of these sexbots.
  • What about the impact of the use of these dolls on the buyer/renter? The repeated use and method of use by the buyer of the sex robot can very easily become habits that spill over into the real world and negatively impact the users understanding of healthy sexuality while increasing the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children.
  • Can a user eventually marry their bot? Another odd question, I know, but who knew we would one day be discussing sex robot brothels?

Some People are in Favor of These Sexbots 

First, we must understand all the arguments. There are many (The Foundation for Responsible Robotics in Netherlands, for example) who are trying to show benefits for people with disabilities, medical issues or the elderly. Others feel the use of robots can curb the abuse of humans. Additionally, The Food and Drug Administration may regulate sexbots as medical devices if sellers claimed the bots “treat, prevent, cure, mitigate or diagnose a disease or condition,” such as sexual dysfunction.

What Can We Do?

With all this in mind, this is an issue we must address. We have legislators trying to shape this issue nationally, statewide and locally. This issue must be brought to their attention. And for good reason. It’s now coming to Houston and will soon be filled with users who rent for physical pleasure but will ultimately have their minds, desires and emotions impacted by what goes on behind those doors. I don’t want this for Houston. I don’t want this for our community. Do you?