What can parents do to protect their children?
To help answer that question, KidSafe Foundation in collaboration with Kristi Kernal of The OAASIS (Oregon Abuse Advocates & Survivors in Service) Organization in Oregon is continuing the important discussion of child sexual abuse by trusted adults in our schools.
The following is an interview that Kristi had with a survivor – now an educator herself, who is sharing her story in the hope of providing adults with insight into the vulnerability of children, the grooming process, and tips to prevent abuse from occurring to your children.
“When I met Shannon Jones a few years ago, I quickly discovered that we had many things in common. We share a love for children, a passion for excellence in education, a faith that sustains us, and a compelling desire to raise awareness about child sex abuse. Shannon agreed to meet with me to share a story that is deeply personal to her, with the hopes that it will help other parents take necessary steps and precautions to keep children safe in schools.” – Kristi Kernal, Vice President OAASIS
Kristi: Why was school not a safe place for you?
Shannon: I tried to be very grown-up and responsible because I had two younger siblings that were sick and needed my parent’s attention. I felt very alone and I had a terrible fourth grade teacher. Once when I was late for class because I was helping a kindergartner, she yelled at me, “YOU ARE LATE!!!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” I told her exactly what had happened and she called me a liar right in front of the class. She wouldn’t accept my truth and kept telling me to tell the truth or she was going to call my parents. I think it was on this day that my abuser picked me out to be his next victim.
Kristi: How did the abuse begin?
Shannon: Now that I am an adult, I can look back on what happened to me and see that this man groomed me. He had seen me in the library on the day that my teacher had called me a liar and came over to ask what was wrong. You have to understand that this man was very close in age to my grandfather so I instantly felt comfortable and wanted to unburden myself with what had just taken place. He told me he would help me and he seemed to genuinely care about me. He offered to have me come and help him in the library so that I didn’t have to be in class with, “the monster teacher.” He also added that he would let me have first pick at the new books. Having a voracious love of reading, this clinched it for me.
At first I don’t think I could have asked for a better “protector.” He would get me out of class, talk with me and then just do really nice things that made me feel special. He also said things like, “You remind me so much of my granddaughter.” He also shared with me that his wife was very ill and handicapped. (I am not sure if that was really true or he was looking for sympathy from me.) I can remember giving him a hug and saying I was so sorry for him. He knew just the right buttons to push. (That is what predators do to gain trust of children and is called “grooming.”)
It all began to change when school was out and the library was open for the summer. One day when I came to the library, he said he found a new book for me. He asked me to stay after the other visitors were gone and I could “open the box and be the first.” I stayed and he took me over to a quiet part of the library and gave me the box. As I opened it he stood behind me and put his hands on my shoulders and sort of whispered/kissed my ear. I froze. This began a year of sexual abuse that I didn’t even really have the words for. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my fifth grade Sex Ed class that I knew correct words to explain what was happening to me. I wanted to cry. I felt so dirty, ashamed and powerless.
Kristi: When we talk about educating the public and parents on child sex abuse, it’s important for them to hear about the impact of abuse on a child (and the adult that child later becomes). How would you say your experience as a victim of child sex abuse impacted you?
Shannon: Holy cow, where do I begin… I think I have strong trust issues and constantly feel the need to do things on my own; never depending on anyone because I feel they will only disappoint. I have panic attacks about my own children being hurt and not being there to protect them. I have control issues that border a little on OCD. At times I battle with depression. I stress every time I hear about another innocent child being hurt because it takes me right back to being that child. And this is me after counseling.
Kristi: At what point did you tell your parents about the abuse? How did they respond?
Shannon: I didn’t tell my parents until I was an adult. They were crushed, flooded with guilt and ashamed that they had done nothing about it. As they reflected back and knew they had seen changes in my personality but were so absorbed in their own personal struggles that it was sort of just on the edge of their consciousness. This, I think was the hardest part, thinking something was wrong but not doing anything about it. My step-father, who I love so much, felt like a complete failure as a father and protector.
Kristi: Let’s talk about healing. How has that happened in your life? Do you think it’s an ongoing process?
Shannon: After my oldest son was born I started going to a counselor because I was afraid something would happen to him. This wasn’t postpartum issues; it was more similar to post traumatic stress. It took me a long time to open up to my counselor about what had happened to me as a child. I would talk about everything else but the abuse. Finally she flat out asked me. Dealing with the ugliness of abuse is very difficult. There is so much misplaced shame and pent up anger/frustration that you have to work through. It is so worth it but very painful and draining. Healing is an ongoing process. Every day I have to lay my fears down or they will overpower me. I know I could not do this if it wasn’t for my faith and the promises I have in it. My amazing husband and children also play a HUGE part in my healing. I think if it weren’t for them I would not be where I am today.
Kristi: As an educator, parent, and survivor, do you believe children are safe from child sex abuse in our schools today? If not, what do you think needs to happen in our schools to make children safer?
Shannon: Good question. A great start would be adding curriculum to their coursework that deals with the direct topic of child abuse and exploitation starting at age 4. It would be age appropriate and give children the tools to help protect themselves or at least know when a boundary has been crossed and what to do. Next I recommend mandatory training for educators – to raise awareness, teach safety skills, and know protocol. Ultimately, parents need to make the safety of their children a priority. Find out who the adults in your child’s life are and look for warning signs. Don’t just assume because a person is a school or church employee that they are safe adults. Parents need to learn how to have these discussions with their children. Lastly, in my opinion, the laws limiting when a person can come forward about their abuse needs to change. There should NEVER be a Statute of Limitations to report sexual abuse. Most children do not feel safe reporting abuse until they are out of the abusive situation – that is why our laws about statute of limitations must change! Survivors deserve the right to seek justice no matter how many years have passed since their abuse.” (For more information on the Statue of Limitations on reporting abuse in your state, visit http://www.sol-reform.com)
Kristi: I know that the safety of your own children is a deep concern of yours, as it is for the majority of parents. In response to the sexual abuse tragedy recently discovered at an elementary school in Los Angeles, The KidSafe Foundation in Florida recently published an excellent piece on keeping children safe in schools. In this piece, KidSafe talks about the importance for parents to be having open and ongoing conversations with their kids about this subject. What steps have you taken to keep your children safe at school, and other places?
Shannon: I have always talked to my boys that their bodies are their own – no one should touch them without their permission. We discuss who are “safe” adults and who are not. We have also role-played situations that might happen. For example we have pretended that a teacher they know very well comes to call them out of class to go to the office, let’s say. They can go with them but if that person deviates any little bit, then they are to run straight back to class and tell the teacher. They also know they are never to be with an adult at school alone. Finally, they know they can tell me anything, I will not over react (keep a poker face) and we have an open line of communication. That is the key to your children continuing to discuss things with you. These are hard conversations to have with your children but you must have them. Sometimes I feel like I have taken away a little of their childlike innocence because we have told them people might act like they love you but they might be hurtful. They need to know if they are confused or uncomfortable by anyone’s words or actions they can come to me to check first and talk about it. They need to know because it will keep them safer. They need to know that I do this because I do love them and want them to be safe and happy; not carrying my scars.
Tell them every day that you love them, that you can handle whatever they have going on, their bodies are special and belong to them, if they ever receive a touch that is confusing or uncomfortable they should report to you immediately and it is never their fault if they receive an unsafe touch (even if they are not able to tell right away), and they are valued and precious to you.
This is one person sharing her story, however 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will be sexually exploited before the age of 18 – 90% of the time by someone they know. Those numbers are just the “reported” statistics and as we said above, most children do not report until they are out of the abusive situation, which may mean many years later.
This is why we believe that there should NOT be a statute of limitations to reporting child abuse. The more we break the cycle of silence of child abuse by sharing personal stories, the more we can all learn from these brave individuals to best keep all children safe. We thank both of these courageous and amazing women, Kristi Kernal and Shannon Jones for sharing this interview with us.
Sally Berenzweig, MEd, MA & Cherie Benjoseph, LCSW are the co-founders of KidSafe Foundation. For more information on this issue: www.oaasisoregon.org and www.kidsafefoundation.org
Kristi Kernal is a wife and the mother of two teen-agers, works as a Para educator with special needs children in Hillsboro, OR, and serves as Vice-President of O.A.A.S.I.S (Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service). www.oaasisoregon.org
Shannon Jones grew up in an Air Force family spending much of her childhood overseas. She went to college at Montana State University where she received her B.S. in Education with an option in Special Education. Shannon has a post graduate Endorsement in ESOL-Bilingual Education and has taught for 14 years in both private and public school settings. She has authored and received educational grants from companies such as Intel, Target, Lowes, and Kohl’s. She has also been nominated for Disney’s Teacher of the Year, and is currently teaching 3rd grade in Beaverton, OR.