Choosing Safe Summer Experiences for Youth

As we enter a summer season, there is much excitement to be had for kids of all ages during these summer months. Many of us agree that it is the best time of the year, and have positive memories from summer adventures. While parents and families are seeking engaging, character building, AND fun activities for their kids, it’s important to consider “safety” on that list of essential criteria.

When it comes to safety, there are some common practices that readily come to mind: maintaining safety around water and swimming pools, wearing helmets and protective gear during sports or games, reapplying sunscreen regularly and staying hydrated in the Texas heat. These are examples of basic and important habits to establish and reinforce so that kids have positive memories, rather than injuries, from summer experiences.

There is another realm of child safety that all caregivers should also be paying attention to this summer: child protection and, more specifically, child sexual abuse prevention. In reality, 1 out of 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Read that again: ONE out of TEN. 90% of abused children know their abuser, so it is important that we understand how to create safe environments for youth to have caring and appropriate relationships with adults and other youth. The good news is, this type of abuse IS preventable, and there are excellent resources for parents and youth serving professionals to know, see, and respond to the signs of sexual abuse.

When making a choice about the camps, summer events, or activities a child will attend, it’s important for caregivers to ask the right questions. Youth serving organizations should be ready and willing to talk about the measures they take to prevent child sexual abuse. Below are five straightforward questions to start the conversation, adapted from Darkness to Light.

  1. Is there a child protection policy?
  2. Does the policy include limiting isolated, one-on-one situations?
  3. How are employees AND volunteers screen and trained?
  4. Do older and younger children interact, and if so, how?
  5. Are there clear procedures for reporting rule breaking, suspicions, or incidences of abuse?

If you don’t like the answers you receive to any of these questions, it’s time to explore other summertime opportunities. You would not allow your child to play on broken playground equipment, ride in a car without a seatbelt or child seat, or have access to poisonous substances. As adults, keeping kids safe includes getting out of our comfort zones and making courageous decisions.

For children not enrolled in formal youth-serving programs, parents still have an opportunity to put safety measures in place. Check out summer sleepover tips, general steps to protecting kids, and guidance for talking to children about boundaries and appropriate relationships at Darkness to Light, Crime Stoppers of Houston, the Children’s Assessment Center of Houston, and other great resources.  Whether at the waterpark, on family vacation, planning a neighborhood sleepover, or attending sporting events, all adults can step up to prevent abuse this summer. The children in our lives, and in our broader communities, deserve it.

Baby Boomers are reaching the age of Maturity

Elder abuse is becoming more and more prevalent especially as the baby boomers reach the age of 65 years. As the population grows so does the instances of abuse. Statistics reveal that approximately 5 million elderly people are abused each year and it is estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of abuse are reported to the authorities according to Adult Protective Services. The elderly is subjected to various forms of abuse such as physical, emotional/verbal and sexual ill-treatment. It is determined that perpetrators of abuse are usually family members. As elder abuse becomes more blatant so should the systematic responses to conquering the nationwide epidemic.

The media often spotlights abuse as a prevalent problem in society today, and often it is specific to abuse against children. There are many government and private organizations devoted to preventing child abuse and helping its’ current victims. However, this is not the only abuse occurring that merits attention. Abuse also effects a different demographic of people; the elderly. While the abuse effecting children is acknowledged, it may appear that many people are not as familiar with abuse of the elderly. Subsequently there are fewer organizations to assist. Abuse of the elderly does not discriminate as it is both genders, all cultures, all ethnicities, and all socioeconomic classes. There are three main types of elder abuse; physical, verbal/emotional, and sexual abuse. Each form of abuse has signs, rising prevalence in society, and not enough social awareness or community support. It is predicted that by 2030, when the first baby boomer reaches the mature age of 84, the number of Americans over 65 will be tripled. Essentially, more than 20 percent of the population will be over the age of 65, and as the elderly population grows, the crimes against them are expected to exponentially rise in incidence and prevalence. Elder abuse is becoming one of the fastest growing crimes in society and is also one of the most underreported and misunderstood. This is because elders do not want to report nor do they want to be a part of the process. Many elderly adults are abused in their own homes, or while they are residing in the home of relatives who are supposed to be caring from them in their time of need. As the elderly become older and weaker their ability to stand up or fight back, if attacked, becomes greatly diminished. There are indicators of physical abuse such as; unexplained broken bones, cuts, punctures, burns, bruises and welts wherein, other common indicators include, broken eye glasses with no reasonable explanation or signs of being restrained, such as marks around the wrist. Members of the community may be able to recognize these warning signs of abuse if properly educated on what to look for. This is not to state that all injuries the elderly sustain constitutes abuse. Per Adult Protective Services data the Houston district received 21,575 reported cases of abuse, neglect and/or exploitation in FY 2018 wherein of those 11,567 cases were validated for some type of maltreatment against the elderly and disabled.

As elder abuse becomes more prominent, so do the systematic responses to conquering this nationwide epidemic. The primary source of response to allegations of abuse against the elderly in Texas is Adult Protective Services. There are social service agencies with a comprehensive understanding of this growing, and prevalent problem, and much room for expansion of these services. The response to elder abuse is most effective when it is a collaborative effort by all social service agencies, criminal justice systems, health care providers and the community. The elderly population deserves to live their retirement years with dignity and there are many that cannot do it alone.

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.