Parenting Lessons from Penn State

For almost 13 years I have been a prosecutor in one of the largest prosecutorial agencies in the country,  so I have become somewhat accustomed to hearing graphic details about serious criminal offenses.  But, the allegations of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up which have unfolded at Penn State shock even me.  Perhaps my shock is also due to the fact that in addition to being a prosecutor, I am also a parent.  My husband too, is a prosecutor in the same office, and together we have four kids.  He has also been troubled by the facts that led to a 40 count indictment alleging that Jerry Sandusky, a former coach at Penn Sate, sexually abused 8 young boys over a period of 15 years.  In fact, my husband recently had a nightmare that predator was preying on our kids, while our kids participated in their extra-curricular activities.

The more I learn about the facts of the Penn State case, the more horrified I become by them.  Sandusky met his young victims through a charitable organization he founded, which sought out youth at risk. Sandusky would “court” the boys, buying them expensive gifts, taking them on trips, and allowing them to watch Penn State football games from the sidelines. Once he established a relationship of trust between the parents and the young boys, Sandusky, allegedly sexually assaulted his victims.  But, it is not this case alone, which has horrified me or perhaps contributed to my husband’s recent nightmare.  It seems that recently we have been repeatedly reminded that these abuses occur. Just this month, we read in the Los Angeles Times about a Boy Scout leader, who was allowed to continue claiming young victims in different cities, even though the Boy Scout Council was made aware of the allegations against this leader. As prosecutors working for the agency which investigated sexual assault allegations against the Catholic Church and the Los Angeles Archdiocese, we know that these types of abuses are not limited to secular institutions.  As a result of all the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and its sexual abuse awareness training requirements, I recently had to complete my own sexual abuse prevention training, so that I could continue to volunteer at the Catholic school my children attend.

In my own work as a prosecutor, I recall being so affected by the graphic home-made video that an abuser had made of his assault on a young boy, that it caused me to have nightmares of my own. My own son was, at the time, the same age as the young victim in the video.  The sight of those images made me want to keep my son in a bubble, within the four corners of his house, protected by a mother who would never allow potential perpetrators from the outside world contact with him.  It was at that moment that I knew I had to refuse an offer to work in a special unit which exclusively prosecuted sexual and violent crimes against children and other vulnerable victims. I knew that as a mother and a prosecutor, if I were working intimately on those cases, having contact with the young victims and their families, I might be a better advocate, but, after working with such cases and then going home to my young children who played sports, were involved in scouting and had a growing circle of friends, I would not be a better mother. Our kids needed and wanted to be involved in activities. As a parent, I wanted to allow them to participate in activities, but as a prosecutor, who is aware of the dangers, how do I balance that?

My husband and I talked a lot about it. We decided early on to have a No Sleepovers rule while our kids were young. To me, as a young girl growing up in the U.S. culture where sleepovers were a rite of childhood, this sounded harsh. But, to my husband, the son of Latin American immigrant parents, sleepovers were a foreign idea, and not a part of his childhood years.  Our policy meant that our kids would not be permitted to sleepover at any of their friends’ houses, even if we knew the parents. We reasoned that, although we may know the parents, we may not know the uncles, cousins or brothers who may be in the house. Besides, in many sexual abuses the contact occurs not by random stranger, but by someone the victim knows and has grown to trust.  I know to some, our No Sleepovers rule sounds harsh, but it worked out.  If our kids were invited to sleepovers we would let them go for the evening and then pick them up when the kids would be settling into “sleep.” This bright line rule also prevented sleep deprived kids from melting down the next day. However, the No Sleepovers rule did not prevent my own kids from inviting their friends to spend the night. And actually, now that three of my kids are teens, I have loosened up this rule a bit and allowed them to sleep over occasionally at a friend’s house, as long as I call the parent and I feel comfortable with their house rules.

This weekend, my 13 year-old son went on an overnight backpacking retreat for his church youth group. Before he left, I confirmed the number of adults chaperoning, and the sleeping arrangements. On the drive over to the trailhead, my husband took the opportunity to use the Penn State example as an opener to discuss any unwelcome and inappropriate sexual contact. My son has heard it all before, from us, and with the Good Touch/Bad Touch curriculum taught at his school, but this was another opportunity to reinforce his awareness and empower him.

The other thing as parents that my husband and I have done to empower our kids is to let them know that it is okay to trust their instincts.  In our Latino family, physical affection is commonplace. Kissing and hugging are ordinary ways of greeting and saying good-bye. But, that doesn’t mean that our kids shouldn’t have boundaries when it comes to their own bodies, or if they feel uncomfortable with certain signs of affection, they should speak up. I can remember as a young girl, being kissed good-night by an older cousin who came to tuck me and my sister and cousin into bed. As he said good-night, his kiss lingered a little too long and got a little too close to my lips. It made me squeamish, but I did not say anything to my cousin, my parents or my sister. I thought maybe I was too sensitive. Still, I did my best to avoid him after that.  Years later, I learned that my older cousin had molested other young girls through the years. I wish now that I told my parents about the weird way my cousin kissed me goodnight.

As parents, we know that these evils exist. And unfortunately, too often they exist within our own circles. As a prosecutor I am well aware of that, but as a parent, my job is to balance the safeguards I impose with the liberties I allow my children.  It’s not easy to do, especially since three of my kids are now teenagers. Sometimes I am left feeling like the meanest mom around, but other times, like when my son tells me that he can use his Tae Kwan Do skills to defend himself, or my daughter tells me about an incident which “creeped her out,” I feel like we must be doing something right, even if we are “the strictest, most paranoid parents around.”

Study Techniques for Old Dogs Who are Never Too Old To Learn New Tricks

You know the saying that goes, “It’s never too late to learn?”  Or does it go, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? In any case, during the last four months while I was studying for a big promotional exam, I experienced both.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn

Well maybe not, but it’s certainly more difficult to learn new material when it’s “later” in  life. This is probably due to a number of factors, including, I am reluctant to say, my aging brain.  I would rather like to think that learning is more difficult because I have more demands on my time now than I did as a full-time student. Now I have a full-time job, a family with four kids, and a household to run. My memory has a limited capacity and unfortunately, legal standards, case law, and personnel policies exceed my memory’s maximum capacity.

Studying for this exam forced me to learn new study techniques so that I could be more efficient and memorize information for the big test. One of these techniques involved taking advantage of all the technology that didn’t exist when I was in law school 16 years ago.  One of my very generous and tech savvy co-workers, did me and the 400+  other test takers a tremendous favor by scanning all the review materials,  and digitally recording all the exam review lectures and uploading them onto a cloud at Sugar Sync.  It was incredible.  I learned how to use the cloud and was able to access the information from anywhere, as long as I had my iPhone with me.   I spent many weekends doing laundry, driving kids to their activities, and cooking dinner, listening to a downloaded lecture.

Another study tool I learned to use was the iPhone app for flashcards. Another tech savvy co-worker created a series of flashcards on an app and made it available for all of us to study. It was so convenient. One night Juan and I went out to get a drink and he sat watching the World Series on the bar’s television, I reviewed flashcards from my iPhone app.

Another thing I learned during this period was how much more efficient I can be when I am focused and I have limited time to study. I wish I knew this in law school when I was a full-time student and frittered away my time, finding countless distractions to keep from really focusing on my studies. I wish I could teach my high school daughter Olivia this, as I watch her “studying” at the computer while switching from Facebook, to Tumblr and simulanteously responding to a text message.  I often ask her, “Shouldn’t you be studying?”  Although, I must confess that one night I was studying and switched over to Facebook. She was studying on a computer in another room and must have seen that I went on-line. She immediately sent me an on-line message, “Shouldn’t you be studying?” Touche´!

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

When I was in law school I realized that in order for me to truly understand something I needed to do more than read it and highlight it. I needed to dissect it, and diagram it. I guess this makes me a visual learner. When I studied for the Bar Exam I made countless flow charts, and diagrams to help me understand legal concepts. This trick worked. I passed the bar on the first try.  As I was studying for this exam, I tried to short cut my studying by repeatedly listening to lectures, and reading outlines. I learned a little but I really didn’t feel like I absorbed the material.  As soon as I read or heard the material, I was unable to recall what it was about. In the end, the only way I really was able to understand something was to resort to my old trick of drawing flow charts and diagrams.

The other trick I used, which served me well in college and law school was a study group. I was part of a study group that met regularly through our exam period in law school. We divided the work load and then reviewed the material together. This time around, I was also part of a study group.  The women in my study group were also working mothers, and we supported each other throughout the process. We shared information, took self-made practice exams, and when there were legal concepts which some of us were unfamiliar with, we called a resident expert who would explain it to us.

In spite of all the high tech study tools available to me, I still relied on the very low tech flash cards made from index cards.  Olivia could not contain her delight when, one night when it was just the two of us up late studying, I asked if she had any more packages of blank index cards.  She gladly handed me over a brand new package from her own stash.

The community support from my co-workers, and the high and low tech tools, made the job of studying a lot more tolerable, but I am still so relieved to be done with the exam.  This dog doesn’t need to learn any new more new tricks,  for a while at least,

The Writing Prompt, a Tool for the Tired Brain.

It’s late. I have been working at my computer all day. Writing. Editing. But, not the kind of writing and editing that stirs my creative soul or stimulates the right side of my brain. It’s the kind of writing I do all day at my job. You know, the job that pays the bills. The job where I edit legal documents, draft factual crime summaries, and write affidavits for the victims whose lives are traumatized by crime. So, now my work day is over, dinner is done, dishes are washed and kids are asleep; and as part of November’s daily blog post challenge,  I am supposed to blog. I am supposed to write about something. Anything. Or not. I got nothing.

So, instead of writing about something that came to me in the middle of a giant brainstorm, I turn to a tool I have never used before, the writer’s prompt. I need it today, I spent the entire day working on documents for a murder case. A prompt is supposed to stir an idea, and in this case, it’s offerred to bloggers who are participating in November’s post a day challenge. The prompt changes daily and is posted at the web site hosting the National Blog Posting Month challenge. I clicked on the site and scrolled down to today’s prompt:

“Has anything traumatic ever happened to you? Describe the scene surrounding a particular event.”


Didn’t I say I was tapped out? Didn’t I write about enough trauma today?

I thought about the traumatic events of my life. Certainly,  nothing could compare to some of the trauma crime victims experience. But, still there must be something? I could talk about the traumatic birth experience I had with Nico. No, I’ve dealt with enough graphic scenes today.  I could write about the trauma of my divorce, but that is just exhausting and I don’t want to delve into that emotional abyss. So, how about a little light-hearted trauma? Is there even such a thing?

The closest thing I can recall to a light-hearted traumatic event is the experience I had when I was a child,  camping with my family in Mammoth Lakes and fishing along the Owens Valley River. My dad loved to stream fish. My brother did too. As for me and my sister, we liked it okay until we became too frustrated by the lost bait and tangled lines, and when we grew too bored waiting for the “big one.” We would often end up abandoning our poles and create games to play along the water’s edge, like catching minnows in the marshy banks.

After I discovered a large school of baby fish, I left my pole with my father,  who was still fishing along the bank and asked my mother for a paper cup so that I could scoop up the fish.  I returned to the riverbank and found an area along the marshy bank where the tall grass provided a natural pool for the fish. Here the water seemed still, even though all around the river moved swiftly. My father was still fishing upstream, about 15 feet away. I bent down to scoop up the fish, and fell in the cold water. I found myself sinking under the cold, cloudy water. I did not feel panic, rather I felt surprise to be underwater.  I looked up and could see the clear blue sky and the deep green marsh grass along the riverbank. That must have been the moment I realized where I was. I was disoriented but I managed to surface enough to grab a hold of the tall grass, and pull my head above the water. I could see my father drop his fishing pole and begin running towards me. I saw a flash of red from his jacket and a blur of brown from his shoes, as he approached me. The panicked expression on my father’s face as he stood above me made me  realize the seriousness of the situation. I became aware of the current moving swiftly around me and under me. I felt the grass begin to give way, its roots loosening from the muddy bank, and I felt the panic set in me. I don’t know if my father jumped in or reached in to grab me, but suddenly I felt myself being lifted out of the water. Being lifted out of the water,  shocked to me as much as the cold water temperature did when I fell in. The fear in my father’s eyes sent me into a greater shock and I gasped for air, coughing up the water I did not realize I swallowed, and choking on my great,  heaving sobs, which appeared from nowhere. I was cold, wet and scared. My mother came from the car with a blanket.  The rest is a blur. But, to hear my dad’s version of the story, the current was swift and if not for his fast action, I would have been swept away

My father has told this story before. I don’t know now if my own memory of this incident has blurred with his re-telling of it, but, I have a strong sense that my initial reaction was not panic. Rather my initial reaction was disorientation, and then realization, followed by my natural instinct to save myself.  It was not until I experienced  the reaction of those around me that I began to panic. Looking back at this incident, and other traumatic events in my life, I think that I probably have experienced these events the same way, with my survival instinct helping me to surface from disorientation, and my family pulling me to safety.

Fishing without the drowning part.


The Circus is in Town

Some days I make it away from my desk at lunchtime and go for a stroll around my downtown office. Sometimes, I’ll even treat myself to lunch out, instead of eating the brown bag lunch from home. Today was one of those days.

I planned to go out to lunch with a co-worker and I’m glad I did. I forget that my office will  handle cases which are quite newsworthy, like the Conrad Murray trial.  There’s been a circus just outside my office recently, a media circus.


The media camped out across from the courthouse.


And as the circus goes, sometimes the sideshow is just as interesting as the main event.



13th Juror

After we made our way through the crowd, we ended up at Coles, a  place that claims to be the originator of the French Dip sandwich. Coles also claims that the cocktail was invented there.  Legend has it that 1920’s gangster Mickey Cohen frequented the establishment.  I have had sandwiches from Phillipes, the other place that claims to have invented the French Dip sandwich, but, I must say, that I preferred Cole’s version.

After lunch, (sans cocktail), we made our way back to the office. The bus broke down so we had to walk a couple of blocks. I got to walk through another type of encampment in downtown LA—the Occupy LA movement.


Tents set up around LA City Hall

Occupy LA at City Hall

Mural at Occupy LA

The only thing missing on my lunch hour was running into a movie crew filming downtown.  My lunch companion did say she saw a crew filming this morning near her parking lot, but since it began to rain over the lunch hour, they must have finished for the day. I guess I will have to get out more often.

Summer Strategizing Wrap-up

Now that summer is unofficially over, I thought I’d write about the results of my Summer Strategizing.  At the beginning of the summer, I wrote this post about how I was planning on filling up my kids’ summer days with summer school, chores and summer activities.  You know that saying, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry?” I think my summer was a bit like that.

I did have some success in engineering the kids’ summer school programs. Olivia completed the SAT prep course and Drivers Education. Nico and Erica both completed their High School entrance exam course, and Eric even did an Algebra review course and a painting class. Diego, well, he had the most fun, taking a science and geography class. All in all, I think it’s safe to say we spent about a small fortune keeping our kids in school this summer. Did they learn anything? I hope so. I do know that the girls learned how to navigate public transportation pretty well, so if Olivia can’t pass her driving test, at least she’ll know how to ride the bus.

One of the other plans I had for my kids this summer was to work on some chores. I intended for them to start dinner while I was at work. Yeah. That didn’t go so well. I still found myself rushing home from work, faced with four hungry kids who apparently didn’t know how to cook anything but a Lean Pocket in the microwave.  There was one day, when Olivia had an urge to bake and when I got home from work I saw this:

Lemon bars and an apple pie. Both were delicious, and since she had even washed all the dishes, I guess I can  overlook the fact that no one really cooked dinner while I was at work. Oh well.

Another task I set up for the kids was to complete their summer homework.  Each of the kids had summer reading to do and Nico and Erica both had to write essays  on their books.  Watching Nico sit at the computer to compose a paragraph is like watching paint dry. On the other hand, getting Erica to read her assigned books is like pulling teeth. I don’t know if she finished reading Pride and Predjudice and the Watsons Go to Watsonville, but she is so crafty, that one, she should be able to write her essay even if she didn’t finish the books.

Now that Labor Day has come and gone and summer is unofficially over, I can say that while I certainly did manage to fill my kids days with activities, I did not really enjoy the season. There were some fun days, but with my grandmother’s passing, and the hectic pace at work and home, I feel like I just got through it.  Barely.  I think part of it had to do with the fact that this summer we did not not really getaway.  Not that we really go anywhere glamorous, but at minimum our family goes camping. Sad to say, we didn’t even do that. I think it makes a difference to get away and break up the routine.  I hope we can manage some type of getaway next summer.

A vacation would be great in the Fall but unfortunately, my life has become all about studying. In August, I received news that my job was offering promotions in Spring 2012. Unfortunately, in order for me to be eligible for a promotion at my government agency job, I have to take a test and rank high enough to be placed on a promotability list. The test will be given in October and will cover materials in these notebooks:

I have to say that studying law and policies as a 48 year-old with a family of four kids, while working full-time, is a lot more challenging then studying law and policies and having a social life as a 28 year-old law student.  So, I hope you will hang in there with me if I am not able to post regularly for the next six weeks. After October, I hope to back to my regularly scheduled life.  Until then, I better check on dinner. No,  the kids aren’t cooking (still), and after dinner I have to hit the books.

Happy end of Summer. Welcome Fall.