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.”