Teaching Kids About Sexual Abuse: It's OK To Tell

Amid the Penn State scandal, host Michel Martin explores how parents can teach kids to flag inappropriate behavior from adults. Martin hears from a childhood sexual abuse survivor, a pediatrician, and two regular parenting contributors. (Advisory: This segment contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we feel we really must talk about that awful story coming out of Penn State that has been all over the headlines and certainly on the minds of many parents. A former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was recently charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15-year period.

All of the children were participants in his youth organization, Second Mile. Mr. Sandusky has been arrested. The legendary head of the football program at Penn State, Joe Paterno, has been forced out, along with the head of the university because of the way they handled the allegations when they found out about them.

In an interview with Bob Costas of NBC News yesterday, Sandusky says he is innocent of the charges brought against him and, at one point, Mr. Costas asked whether the allegations were completely false and this is Sandusky's answer.

JERRY SANDUSKY: Well, I could say that, you know, I have done some of those things. I have horsed around with kids. I have showered after workouts. I have hugged them and I have touched their leg without intent of sexual contact.

MARTIN: The New York Times now reports that as many as 10 more potential victims have come forward to authorities since Sandusky's arrest.

What we want to talk about today is this very difficult question, and it's a perennial question, of how to teach children to be alert to potentially abusive behavior and how to get them to speak up, especially if the behavior involves adults that they have come to believe that they can trust.

To talk about this, we've called upon two of our regular contributors, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker. Jolene is the mother of five boys. Dani is the single mom of two teenagers, a boy and a girl. Also with us once again is Dr. Leslie Walker. She's a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.

And we're also very pleased to have with us a very brave young woman, Lauren Book. She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by her nanny. She's the author of the book "It's Okay To Tell," and now she's also directing Lauren's Kids. That's an organization that works to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

I thank you all so much for speaking with us about this very difficult topic.

DR. LESLIE WALKER: Thanks, Michel.

LAUREN BOOK: Thank you.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Jolene, I'm going to start with you. You're the mother of five boys. And as parents, of course, you try to teach children to respect the authority of adults, I mean, especially people who have to take charge when we're not around, and nobody wants their kids, you know, swinging from the chandeliers the minute they step out the door.

On the other hand, how have you taught your kids to question that authority when something isn't right?

IVEY: And that is really a difficult thing, just what you present, because I do teach my boys to be obedient and to respect authority and, while they're not perfect in that, they're pretty good. They're pretty obedient kids, but that same obedience could be the thing that gets them into trouble.

And any time you have a case like this bubble up, it gives us an opportunity to talk with our kids, so that's one thing I've been...

MARTIN: And have you done so?

IVEY: Absolutely. This week has definitely been the week of - oh, my God, can you believe this happened?

MARTIN: And the message is - tell us, what do you say?

IVEY: The message is, if anybody touches you where they're not supposed to be and, you know, any place private, tell us. Run, scream, hit. You can defend yourself. It's not right and I don't care who it is. I don't care if it's, you know, a relative. I don't care if it's a family friend. It's more likely to be someone like that than some boogieman that you just met at the 7-Eleven.

So no matter what the situation, I want them to know that I will believe them and that they have complete authority to defend themselves.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? And I know it's a sensitive subject for many, but you are a single mom and both your kids play sports. They're involved in lots of activities, so they're at a point at which, because they're teenagers, they're spending more time away from you. What have you talked to your kids about this?

DANI TUCKER: Like Jolene, we've been talking about it all week. I agree with what Jolene said and just to add, I've been real open. I've always been open with them because I think it helps your kids when you're not sort of prudish about it around the house. You know, you can have that conversation about that topic, about this type of incident. Again, if you're like me and you have sports-oriented kids, they are around coaches.

But nip it in the bud from the little, small things that can start out big, like showers. No. Never appropriate to shower with a grown man. Never, ever, in any instance. And you have to do it there, because they do. I mean my son has got coaches that have been in his life all his life who are like fathers to him. I'm a single mom so, so, you know, he trusts these guys. OK, why not get in the shower? No. You know....

MARTIN: Has that ever happened...

TUCKER: No. It hasn't...

MARTIN: ...where you've had to draw lines?

TUCKER: No, never happened.

MARTIN: No?

TUCKER: Because we were always open about the conversation - what is just not acceptable that's, you know, how they call it, that's your dog, that's your coach, but at the same time, you don't do A, B, C, D and E, you just don't.

MARTIN: At what age did you start telling - talking...

TUCKER: When he started playing football.

MARTIN: When he started playing.

TUCKER: You have to. I mean you just have to. Of course, I felt as a single mother I have to double time it, because you always feel like you're pulling, you know, both sides - duty on both sides. So, you know, these coaches are picking him up, they were picking him up at that age and OK, I'll meet you at the game type thing. Well, no, we got to have this conversation now.

MARTIN: Mmm. Lauren, let me just say that I have tremendous respect for you. Your story is remarkable. It's very disturbing. We cannot discuss all the details here. But one of the things that I noted from your book is that you knew from the beginning that something was wrong. The behavior, you knew was wrong and yet, you didn't think you could tell anybody. Could you talk a little bit about that?

BOOK: Yes. absolutely. And like Jolene said, you know, my parents always told me that you respect your elders, you listen to what everybody says. You know, my mother was mentally ill and my dad traveled an awful lot, so my nanny was in charge and was the head of our household and she was like a mother to me, so I didn't feel like I could really tell my mom because she didn't have the capacity to really help or understand. And when it came to my dad, I didn't want to be embarrassed. So one of the things that we use at the foundation is the trusted triangle. And it's three or more adults that your children can turn to in any situation, whether it's a fight with a friend or a bad dream, because we want to open those lines of communication that Dani and Jolene were talking about, so that they can trust you and they can talk to you about a bad dream or a fight with a friend, and then when it becomes a touch that they receive that makes them feel unsafe. So it's teaching them how to access help and it's a really important thing to do.

MARTIN: How did you open up the trusted triangle idea? Like how - 'cause I could envision a situation where your nanny would have been part of that trusted triangle.

BOOK: Absolutely. My...

MARTIN: She was a live-in nanny - just to clarify - she was a live-in nanny who was hired because your mom was having problems and your dad was away a lot. And she seemed OK at the beginning, right?

BOOK: Absolutely. Waldy definitely would have been in my trusted triangle. And one of the things that we talk about with our kids is we want somebody outside of the home, so a teacher, a coach, your guidance counselor, the principal, your rabbi, your priest - somebody outside of that incest zone. Because we have seen a lot of instances, where a child says mom, you know, dad or uncle or the boyfriend is touching me inappropriately and mom relies on dad or the boyfriend's income or the place to live. So we need somebody outside of that incest zone who can really be there for the child and it is so important. And it is like Jolene said, 90 percent of the time children are abused by someone that they know, love or trust. This is somebody who's in their lives who you don't suspect. It's a very high probability that each of us know a sex offender, a predator, a child molester and we don't even know it.

MARTIN: Dr. Walker, you know, sadly you've treated many teens and children after they've been sexually assaulted or abused. Is this something you routinely ask about when you're examining kids or talking to kids, just seen in the normal course of your work?

WALKER: Yeah absolutely. Every time I see a young person, that is one of the questions that's asked. And it's asked alone, because again, you know, a lot of times kids feel a lot of guilt about letting parents down and letting them know what's happened. I get kids come in and complaining of eating disorders, bulimia, overeating, depression, suicide attempts, school failure, drug, alcohol abuse. And you get them alone in the room and give them a safe place and they disclose a lot of times for the first time that they've been sexually abused and that's where all the trouble kind of began. And it's extremely important. I like the idea of the trusted adult triangle and getting people outside of their normal circle, because it's really hard.

I've had kids who the minister, the friends, all the people at church, everybody was within that tight circle and the person absolutely had no one to confide in in their daily life.

MARTIN: And so you are that person.

WALKER: Yes.

MARTIN: I got to tell you Dr. Walker, this is, at what age do you start asking to see children alone? Because one of the things that, you know, everywhere you turn there's some example of someone breaking trust. In the Delaware area, in the mid-Atlantic area, there was a doctor, a pediatrician, who was molesting children while their parents were in the waiting room. And he has been arrested. He's been charged. There are dozens of victims. And so I have to tell you that after that incident I became very cautious about letting my child alone with the doctor - whom I adore. I adore my children's doctors. I don't want to - but then my question becomes, I don't really want to leave my child alone with anybody, particularly when they're young, and how do you navigate something like that?

WALKER: Well...

MARTIN: I'm going to ask Lauren to answer that question. So Dr. Walker, you first.

BOOK: Yeah. With working with teens, anyone from 10 to 24, they absolutely get time alone in my clinic to talk about whatever they need to talk about that they feel uncomfortable saying in front of their parents. But at all times with any doctor at any point, a kid has the right to have a chaperone there. And that may not change their ability to disclose. A lot of times it's the discomfort of talking about it with their parent in the room. So even if there's a nurse and a doctor in the room that pretty, that cuts down the ability of someone who might have been a predator to act and it gives the kid - you know, so it gives the parents some confidence that their child is being watched and not completely alone with one person, but it also still gives the kid that opening to be able to talk to somebody who is not in their immediate life about something important like this.

MARTIN: We're talking about how to talk about childhood sexual abuse with your kids. Of course, we're talking about this in the wake of that terrible story out of Penn State where an assistant football coach is alleged to have abused a number of children with whom he was connected through his children's charity.

We're speaking with Dr. Leslie Walker. She's a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, two of our regular contributors, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey. Jolene is the mom of five boys, Dani the parent of two teenagers, a boy and a girl. And also with us, a very brave young woman named Lauren Book, who is the author of "It's Okay to Tell." She's a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a caregiver.

Lauren, is there something that adults in your life could have done to make it easier for you to get help sooner? And I don't ask this question to make anybody feel bad. You've been very careful, as I said, in your book, you're very, I think, discreet and respectful of the difficulties that, you know, your mom in particular was having. But is there something someone else could have done to help you?

BOOK: I think that it's all about education and awareness. You know, when I was brought up I remember my dad saying to me, we don't talk about the things that happen in this house in relation to my mom's illness and that was about protecting our family and protecting my mom and I really internalized that. So I think it's, you know, part of the parents to really be aware of some of the things that they say. And then, you know, having educators be aware of, you know, offender traits. Because Waldina, who was my nanny, fell in a lot of those: preoccupied with children, acted very funny around the child, would be very weepy or needy when I tried to pull away. There are a lot of things that people who are in the lives of children need to be aware of, a lot of offender traits and a lot of things that they could have picked up from me, perhaps. I would hold Waldy's hand, I would call her baby, things that I would hope people picked up on, but didn't. So it's about that education and awareness, and 95 percent of sexual abuse is preventable with education and awareness, and that's a huge piece. It's so important...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, after the fact, were there adults who said I thought something was wrong but I didn't say anything? Was there any of that conversation?

BOOK: Yes. I should have known. Well, I saw you sitting on her lap and it seemed like it was OK, 'cause you were OK with it, but it did seem kind of weird to me. You know, yes, you would hold Waldy's hand when you were in the car, it did seem weird, but I didn't think that anything was wrong. So, yes, those things did exist and people did come along. And Waldy would come during lunch and check on me. She would come during school breaks and check on me because she didn't want me around certain people, she wanted me very controlled so that I didn't have access to tell anyone, whether it was a trusted adult or, you know, a peer.

MARTIN: And Lauren, one of the things I really appreciate about Lauren's story is that she's made it clear that, you know, abuse can be both men and women. That, you know, neither gender is immune from either side of this equation. But Jolene, I do have to ask because a mom of five boys, do you think that boys are perhaps less prepared to talk about sexual abuse? I mean girls, it seems like we're kind of our radar is a little bit more up, but what about boys do you think?

IVEY: Yeah, I think that that's a problem, because I know for me, I was not as worried about having boys and having to face this kind of situation. I mean frankly, I just didn't think it was much of an issue. And having had certain things happen to me growing up, I felt like oh, that's something that happens to girls. But as I got older and, you know, my kids got older and more things came out in the news, I really made it a point to talk to them about it.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you, having a boy and a girl? Are there different messages for either or is it the same message?

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING OF THROAT)

TUCKER: Excuse me. Same message, just different ways in presenting it to both.

MARTIN: We're very upset. You can tell, Lauren, that we're all very moved by your story...

TUCKER: Yeah, very much so.

MARTIN: ...and we're all kind of...

TUCKER: She's brave.

MARTIN: You're very brave and we're really proud of you for doing this.

BOOK: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: But Dani, what are you saying?

TUCKER: It's the same message to my son and my daughter but just conveyed in a different way. With my daughter, you know, again, parents...

MARTIN: Sure.

TUCKER: ...draw back on your own experience. I know what I went through as a young lady who was developed, you know, watch these things, watch this type of activity. People may - you're not this age, you know. So the way I presented her is a little something different. Whereas, like she said, with a boy you don't see it or you don't predict as happening. You know, I mean you know your coaches, you know who they're with and you don't present it the same way but at the same time you do have to say something. You do have to do something. You do have to find a way.

MARTIN: Dr. Walker, I'm going to give you a final thought here. There is an awful other side to this and there have been examples of false accusations. In the last year alone in just in this area, we had an example of a coach, a gym teacher who was abusing a number of young girls under his care who happened to be disabled. And then there was also an example where a group of girls were angry at a gym teacher because he had punished them for passing notes or talking and so they made up an accusation which turned out to be false. So how do you recommend that parents navigate such a thing?

WALKER: I think you have to remember that one in three girls under the age of 18 do get sexually abused. And it's no different, it's the same number of boys under, before puberty. So when someone says that they have been abused, you have to assume that it happened immediately, because it's much more likely that you haven't heard of most of the things that are going on, and everybody knows, you know, three people. So one in three people have been abused. So I think you have to go with the first, most important thing is to believe and get the person to safety and help them feel protected no matter what.

Later on, you know, I guess - I've never had a case of somebody saying something; those are exceedingly rare. And I have seen kids recant, though. And kids back down from what really happened, a lot of times because they feel like they're breaking up the family. They feel guilty. They feel that it's overwhelming and the community and people are all coming against them and they recant, but it doesn't mean that it didn't happen. I would always err on the idea that it did happen.

MARTIN: Dr. Leslie Walker.

WALKER: And doing something about it.

MARTIN: Dr. Leslie Walker is a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. She joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker are two of our regular Moms contributors. They were here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. And Lauren Book is the author of "It's Okay to Tell." She's the director of Lauren's Kids, an organization that works to prevent the sexual abuse of kids. Lauren, I hope you'll come back and see us so we can talk more about your very important story. She was with us from WLRN in Miami. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

BOOK: Thank you.

WALKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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