"Body safety, to me, is an approach that adults take to create safe places for kids. It's also giving children information to make them aware that they have rights in the world to be safe, in case somebody takes those rights away from them."
Feather Berkower is a licensed clinical social worker and holds a Master’s of Social Welfare from the University of California, Berkeley. She has been a leader in child sexual abuse prevention since 1985 and has educated nearly one-hundred fifty thousand schoolchildren, parents and youth professionals. Her well-regarded workshop, Parenting Safe Children, empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual assault.
Instagram Live Interview (December 19th, 2021)
SWY: Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what inspired you to start Parenting Safe Children?
FB: I live in Colorado near Boulder, and I love my mountains. And I love hiking and I love where I live. As far as Parenting Safe Children. I got started in prevention education, child sex-abuse prevention education in the mid 80s, around 1985ish, when I was doing an internship for my undergrad degree, and I worked for a program called Child Assault Prevention Project in the Bay Area. And in that project, and in that work that I was doing in this internship, what we were doing was working with kids, it was a school based program. So we were going into schools and educating children, the staff a little bit, and the parents, but mostly it was focused on the kids teaching them prevention skills, refusal skills, around issues with bullies, strangers and known people who might touch them unsafely. And it was really how I got started in this work focusing with kids. It taught me so much of what I know, from those early days, and I stayed with that program. When I finished school, I went back and got my Master's degree in social work and stayed with that program for many years and then went from the Bay Area to Colorado. And over time, as I continued to do prevention work, it really dawned on me in a big way. It was a lightning bolt that it is very important to teach children these skills, these refusal skills around prevention and around body safety. And I was doing that for years and years.
But what really started to feel much more true to me was that we needed to teach adults the skills and we needed to get adult communities to start talking about prevention and to really put the onus and responsibility on adults. Not that children shouldn't learn these skills. They absolutely should and they do and there's a lot of programs for that. I just felt personally that I wanted to focus my energy with adults. And so I moved to working with parents by starting Parenting Safe Children, which educates parents and caregivers and youth professionals, to create environments for children that minimize risk.
Really, my message is that adults are responsible for protecting kids from sex abuse, that children can learn these skills. And it's important that they do, however, ultimately, we need to do this for them. They look to us, children should not have to walk around in the world thinking about sexual abuse and wonder if somebody's going to touch them unsafely. We need to give them the information. But it really comes down to adults being able to learn how to have the conversations around safety with other adults, who their children spend time with, with older youth, with youth professionals, and anyone you would drop your child off with and leave your child in the care of. That's what I'm helping families do, is how to have those conversations, what to say, and how to minimize their child's risk. As well as giving schools and youth organizations the policies to have in place to reduce risk of people who sexually abused children working in organizations.
"Children should not have to walk around in the world thinking about sexual abuse and wonder if somebody's going to touch them unsafely. We need to give them the information."
SWY: Could you please discuss the effects of child sexual abuse? What symptoms should community members watch out for?
FB: So that's a wide range of answers. What we know is that child sexual abuse interrupts the child's development. Children can and they do heal. But it interrupts their development, and some children have lots of negative effects and others have less depending on the circumstances. And really, what it depends on is the response from the adults around them. If in fact, the child discloses, which very often they don't, but some of the effects might include shame, self blame, feeling guilty that a child did something wrong. They can experience lots of fear in relationships, not trusting other people. They can develop hyper-vigilance, and sensitivity to everything around them. Let's say perfectionism. Anger and rage are other big ones.
When we see children in school, or in activities, where they're raging and they're oppositional and they're out of control. We often try to find a diagnosis for them, and we need to start looking at what trauma might they have experienced? These are some of the effects that can happen to young children and adolescents. Sometimes cutting also. Kids often cut their skin a lot, drug and substance abuse, promiscuity. So there's lots of effects here. When they become adults, there's challenges with intimacy and functional relationships. So those are some of the effects.
So what should we look for, what kind of symptoms. In young children, what we look for is advanced sexual knowledge. So if you have a five year old, who is exhibiting behaviors around sexuality that are too advanced for their age, for instance, two five year olds looking at genitals, playing, giggling, taking pants off, in short term, within a similar age range, that's all normal. But a five year old who might be simulating adult sex or engaging in those adult behaviors with a younger child? That's concerning. So those are some of the things we look for. We also look for kids who are acting out on their dolls, or animals sexually, which is really painful and hard. So those are some of the symptoms that we might look for along with everything I said, around the anger and the outbursts.
SWY: Through Parenting Safe Children, you run amazing workshops that equip adults to prevent child sexual abuse in their community. Could you please talk about these workshops and what adults can expect if they participate?
FB: So the parent workshop, what can you expect? Some parents say that it has changed the way they think about keeping children safe, that they thought they knew a lot. They thought they knew everything, they thought they had it covered. And they have learned things that they had never thought about. So that's some of the feedback that I get. There's three parts, there's educate yourself, where I'm giving facts to adults, about how sexual abuse happens to children, then we talk about the body safety for children, the rules. And then the third part would be building your prevention team.
So in the first part of educating yourself, and really focusing on two main areas, and that is how an older youth or an adult, might groom a child into a relationship, as well as how they groom the adults around the child. Because what I've learned from people who sexually abused children when I work with offenders in groups, is that they often groom the adults around the child first to gain trust and loyalty and, you know, handing children over with utmost trust. And, that way they can move where the child is to groom the child. So I really go into the stages of grooming, what the language might sound like, what the signs are. And most importantly, and this is where I really think this is important in prevention programs, not just what does grooming look like? But what do you do? Like, if you see someone behaving with your child in a way that makes you uncomfortable? You feel like you don't have proof, you don't know what to do. We talk about how you don't need proof. But if something makes you uncomfortable, what do you say? How do you approach the conversation? What kind of help can you get from authorities or family and friends or school personnel?
But how do you deal with grooming? In part one, I also in that first part, talk about the difference between children who sexually explore in normal, age appropriate natural ways for their age versus when kids are exploring or acting out sexually in ways that are concerning. And that is super important. That's what we talked about a minute ago is what is normal sexual behavior for kids? And how do you intervene when kids are naked, looking at private parts and genitals and giggling and consensual, not that kids can give consent, but within age appropriate play, they are on the same page together versus kids who are engaging in advanced sexual play knowledge. So that's part one. There's a few more topics in there but that's what they can expect and in the Educate Yourself workshop.
Then part two, we talked about the body safety rules for children. I like to call this a backup plan. Because again, adults are responsible for protecting kids. They are not, should not, in my belief be responsible for protecting themselves. They should have skills to be able to, but ultimately, we need to do that. So in this section we go through touching rules, issues around secrets, issues around privacy. See, I talk a lot about pornography here and how to do your best to minimize the risk of a child being exposed to pornography. And we play what if games and practice the language to give to kids around body safety.
But then the third part follows. And this is, I believe, the most important, which is how to build your prevention team of caregivers. And this is where you take all of those body safety rules and boundaries and now appreciate any conversation you have with your babysitter or potential babysitter before you hire about those body safety rules. And you speak with the gymnastics coach and the school teacher and your own family members and neighbors who your children might be playing with. And all the people that a parent would leave their child in the care of.
"And what we know is that the more you talk about sexual abuse, the more we all do as communities, the more we can break through the stigmas and reduce risks of abuse."
I am suggesting helping parents practice how to speak about these topics just like you would the car seat, the bike helmet, allergies, a child might have to normalize these body safety conversations. And what we know is that the more you talk about sexual abuse, the more we all do as communities, the more we can break through the stigmas and reduce risks of abuse. So we also talk in the the second part about how to answer children's sexual questions, and how to be proactive to nurture children's sexual development through the years if they're not asking questions. I also recommend books that talk about how to raise a child with accurate information around sexual development. So that's what people can expect.
SWY: So as we've talked about today, adults are responsible for protecting children from sexual assault. You've done a really great job of discussing how we can go about that. However, we also know that perpetrators of child sexual assault can sometimes unfortunately be a family member, or in some cases, another child. How do these two factors negotiate?
FB: Most of the time, sexual abuse does occur within a family. And what we know today is that the high risk is between children, siblings, even more than a parent to a child, and both can happen and both do happen. But sibling incest rates are just very, very high and even peers outside family. So it's a good question. I mean, we focus on parents teaching them these skills. But what do we do then if a parent is a perpetrator, or, you know, we focus on adults, other adults.
It's my belief that though I'm focusing on parents and caregivers, that all adults, all adults in many different arenas of a child's life ought to be trained. That prevention education around sex abuse should be part of a paediatricians early education for new parents and part of wellness checkups to give information that the primary parent is not the only person responsible or able to protect a child necessarily. I think that's what you're asking here. So, there are so many adults who can play a role, there are other family members. If trained, they can spot signs of grooming or spot signs of a child not being safe or be proactive in that body safety education. Also, school personnel should be trained, and anyone working in the field in the business of youth, if we're all trained, it would just be like CPR. You know, if it was like safe swim classes, and it was just part of our safety education, we'd have a much better chance of protecting children.
"Prevention education around sex abuse should be part of a paediatricians early education for new parents and part of wellness checkups to give information that the primary parent is not the only person responsible or able to protect a child necessarily."
SWY: What does body safety mean to you, and why is it important that more children and adults alike in our community understand this concept?
FB: Body safety, to me, is an approach that adults take to create safe places for kids. It's also giving children information about making them aware that they have rights in the world to be safe, in case somebody takes those rights away from them. So it's giving children you know, basic information about autonomy in their body, letting kids know that no one is allowed to touch their genitals sexually. Yes, mom can help them toilet when they're two and three. But what we've learned in this field is that so many adult survivors say that they didn't even know what was happening to them was wrong.
"Body safety to me is educating kids just like we teach them to read, and write and do arithmetic, and ride a bicycle and everything else we teach them, it's giving them education, about the rights of their personal space in their body."
So body safety to me is educating kids just like we teach them to read, and write and do arithmetic, and ride a bicycle and everything else we teach them, it's giving them education, about the rights of their personal space in their body. That's what body safety is to me. And then taking those concepts and those boundaries, around secrets, and privacy and touch and all of this and having the adults be willing to discuss body safety with the people around the child.
You know, the other thing I'm just going to slide in here, is how survivors as children experience sexual abuse. We teach kids to say no, we teach kids to run, yell and tell if they are in a position where they're unsafe or someone's touching them. And a lot of prevention programs focus on that. Those are tools that they are allowed to use. This is the language that I would prefer versus you should and you must, because the reality is most children don't say no. The reality is they can't say no, because this is their father, or their uncle, or their teacher or their pastor or their rabbi, or their older sibling. And the power difference is such that it makes it impossible sometimes many times for the child to say no.
So though we do want to keep teaching kids that they have the right to say no. I believe the way we deliver it to them, the nuances, matter, and that we need to let them know if they can't say no, their brain might want to say no but their mouth can't say it, that they're not in trouble. And they're not wrong, and they didn't make it happen. And it's not their fault. So we proactively remove shame if in fact it ever happens to them.
"I believe the way we deliver it to them, the nuances, matter, and that we need to let them know if they can't say no, their brain might want to say no but their mouth can't say it, that they're not in trouble. And they're not wrong, and they didn't make it happen. And it's not their fault. So we proactively remove shame if in fact it ever happens to them."
SWY: Prevention is incredibly important but unfortunately, not all children are lucky enough to have someone save them. What are your thoughts on post-trauma recovery and what we can do as community members to support adults towards healing?
FB: I would say probably the most important thing is listen, just listen, believe. And if you are a friend or family member of a survivor, ask that person how you can support them, you know, don't assume what they need or what they want. Just ask how I can support you? I'm here, I'm listening, I believe you. Also, I think for communities in post recovery, those people who are not survivors, can be allies, and learn about this topic, and support other people, even if they don't know them, knowing that we all have survivors in our life, whether we know it or not. And speak out. Yeah, but listening and believing I'm thinking can create the most healing for people who experience trauma.
SWY: If you could say one thing to a survivor of child sexual assault, what would it be?
FB: I can't say one thing. I would say, I'm sorry, you were violated as a child. And then maybe over and over, this was not your fault. This was not your fault. No one has the right to touch your body. You didn't do anything wrong. And that is a process of healing, that someone's not going to believe that necessarily or get that in the first time. But I think it warrants repeating. You did not do anything. The only person responsible for sex abuse is the person who committed the offense. You didn't do anything to cause this. That's what I would say. And I'm so sorry. No one had the right to do that to you.
SWY: What would be the final message you would like to send to our viewers today, that would sum up this interview and help them to keep their communities off limits to child sexual assault?
FB: I would say that children are counting on you to keep them safe. And people who sexually abused children are counting on us to stay quiet. They're counting on us to be uncomfortable. So we don't speak, and kids are counting on us to do it. So I asked in all my workshops, are you willing to feel a little uncomfortable? So your kid doesn't have to, because we all admit that it's uncomfortable to talk about sexual abuse. Now, I want to shift that to make it so normalized that it's just like talking about allergies and helmets. And so you are willing to feel a little uncomfortable, so you can do your best and so that your child does not have to experience this and to protect them. That's what I would leave people with. And I invite anyone to get on the website Parenting Safe Children, to come and attend and join in with us. It's very interactive, we roleplay and we get into a lot. Some of it is just me speaking and giving information. So, come and be a part of this, and do whatever you can do for the children in your life.
"Children are counting on you to keep them safe. And people who sexually abused children are counting on us to stay quiet."