Checking the Pulse on Youth Advocacy and Prevention Education Work

by Matt Renaud, Youth Advocate & Prevention Educator at AWARE

I’ve been the Youth Advocate & Prevention Educator at AWARE for a little over two years now and I’m finally starting to feel grounded in what this job is all about.  That being said, I also feel that the field of youth advocacy (and advocacy in general) has been shifting during the course of my time at AWARE and that it continues to shift.  Maybe this is the way it has always been – the only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  After all, in order to best meet the needs of the people we serve, we need to be constantly evolving.  I got curious about how other Youth Advocates and/or Prevention Educators have experienced change, success, and challenge in their role, so I sent out a set of questions to my colleagues across the state.  Responses came from people who have been in this work anywhere from one year to over a decade.  Here is a picture of where youth advocacy in Vermont is headed, straight from the horse’s mouth.

 Where do you see our work as Youth Advocates and/or Prevention Educators headed in the future?

Savannah Williams from Umbrella North in Newport explained, “Schools used to be really hesitant [about working with advocacy programs] before Act One was passed, but now Youth Advocates & Prevention Educators are seen more as allies than as strangers in certain communities.”

Bobbi Gagne from the Sexual Assault Crisis Team (SACT) in Barre describes the future of advocacy as “Learning from youth what they see as issues they face rather than us deciding what issues they see as important.”

What’s your favorite part about being a Youth Advocate and/or Prevention Educator?

Laura Young from Umbrella South in St. Johnsbury says, “My favorite part of being a Youth Advocate and Prevention Educator is all of the relationships that I have been able to build Continue reading

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Survivors as Caregivers

By Brittany Lafirira, Youth Advocate, H.O.P.E. Works

Being a survivor of sexual violence is hard. You go through times where your assault or abuse doesn’t cross your mind and then, suddenly something happens and it’s all you think about. Becoming a parent or caregiver is sometimes the thing that triggers past thoughts or feelings. While we often hear that being pregnant and starting a family is the best thing that can happen to someone, there isn’t a lot of talk about how scary and harmful that process can be.

A lot of research has been done on how becoming pregnant can impact survivors. It changes your hormone levels and can be a painful feeling like you have less control over your body. Once the baby is born the risk of post-partum depression increases with being a survivor. If you are a survivor and are thinking about starting a family there are many resources available. Often times Midwives will be more trauma informed and can help make check-ups and the birthing process as comfortable as possible for you. Talking to them about your past trauma will help you get the care you need. For some reading and other resources check out:

For resources on pregnancy and surviving trauma see here and here.

Something that isn’t often talked about is what happens once the baby is born. How trauma can manifest in different ways. Adoptive and Step-Parents are also often left out Continue reading

Exposed and Uncovered – Child Sexual Abuse in Your Community: How it Happens, How to Respond Part II

 

By Laura Young, Youth Advocate, Umbrella

On Friday, June 9th a local St. Johnsbury counselor was arrested for sexual assault of a child (a 14 year old young man) and recording a sex act of a minor. Many of our community members have been left reeling and angry. In my role as the Youth Advocate at Umbrella in St. Johnsbury, I would like to continue to share my thoughts on how this happens and what to do if your community has been affected by child sexual abuse.

  1.  Child sexual abuse is common and a person who sexually abuses a child could have multiple if not many children that they are abusing.

According to the organization Child Lures Prevention: “Male offenders who abused girls had an average of 52 victims each, men who molested boys had an astonishing average of 150 victims each, and only 3% of these crimes had ever been detected.” These statistics only reflect men who perpetrate sexual violence.  Although offenders are overwhelmingly male, it is estimated that women are the abusers in about 14% of cases reported among boys and 6% of cases reported among girls (Statistics on Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse, National Victims of Crime).

  1.  It’s not easy to know how to respond to child sexual abuse, especially when it’s someone well known in the community.

Knowing “how” child sexual abuse can occur can be helpful but, when an incident happens, the information on “how” is often less important to the community affected by Continue reading

Exposed and Uncovered – Child Sexual Abuse in Your Community: How it Happens, How to Respond Part I

 

By Laura Young, Youth Advocate, Umbrella

On Friday, June 9th a local St. Johnsbury counselor was arrested for sexual assault of a child (a 14 year old young man) and recording a sex act of a minor. Many of our community members have been left reeling and angry. How can a man with that level of trust in the community rape a young boy? Not to mention the question lying in the back of our heads as advocates and concerned community members-how many more children did he violate?

I recently watched the movie Spotlight which covered the way that the Boston Globe brought to light the sexual violence occurring within the Catholic Church in the early 2000’s. I couldn’t help but think of this movie as I think of the actions of the counselor in St. Johnsbury. In both situations, the priests and, in this case the counselor, used their standing in the community to cover up their actions.

At this point, when I think of those in authority who abuse children there’s so much I could say. I could keep you reading for days but I will try and sum up just a few (okay, seven) of my thoughts on how this happens and what to do if your community has been affected by child sexual abuse.  Here are three of my thoughts…watch for Part II for the rest!

  1.  An abusive person from outside of the family is generally a trusted, well liked member of a community and of a child’s life.

First, it is important to note that, according to the National Sex Offender Public Website, 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are members of the child’s family.

Of the 70% that are not family members, we tend to have this image in our minds of a perpetrator of a man in a white van offering candy to small children. Although sexual abuse by strangers does happen (10%), the truth is that 60% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are people well known in the victim’s family or the surrounding community. Someone with the communities’ trust and respect. Perhaps we like to think of the man offering candy as a way to protect ourselves from thinking that we may give our trust to someone who could violate our child but this is not the (horrible) truth. Taking a look at the National Center for Victims of Crime’s website we learn that “3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.” This includes individuals that their family and community knew well too.

Often, perpetrators look for places to work or volunteer where they will be around children. They will make an effort to get close to the child’s caregiver and earn their trust or look for a child who does not have actively involved adults. They may intentionally be a friend to families who are having family difficulties and they may hang out in places where children frequent, they may offer to coach or mentor children etc.

Also, people who are seeking to abuse children may use their ties to religious organizations, sports or schools (or in St. Johnsbury’s case their work in a counseling office) to their advantage. Within these organizations, children are taught to trust and respect whomever their authority is (as they should be able to do). Additionally, by being involved in the community, especially in religious organizations the perpetrator has established themselves as someone who shares certain values which causes some parents and some community members to naturally be more trusting of this individual because they hold them to a higher moral standard.

  1.  A sexual predator will groom their victim and their victim’s family as well as the surrounding community

Grooming is an action that a sexual predator takes in order to earn the trust of a child and Continue reading

The Last Girl

By Amy Torchia, Children’s Advocacy Coordinator, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

(Excerpted from the Spring 2016 Vermont Network Newsletter)

A world where every last girl is valued, safe and able to reach her full potential

As the Network moves forward to actualize our purpose to create a world free of oppression, we envision a world where every last girl is valued, safe and able to reach her full potential. The “last girl” is a helpful metaphor that we use to understand the complexity of oppression and focus our efforts.  Where the last girl thrives, so too will her entire community because she is the most marginalized of them.  As a child advocate who has worked in the violence against women’s movement for many years, I feel hopeful.  I see that we now have an opportunity to talk about and engage young people in a way that we have not before – all because we have said that we want the last girl to thrive.

The Network is committed to examining how multiple forms of oppression compound to impact individuals and communities.  This path leads us right to the last girl.  She is oppressed because of her gender, further oppressed if she is a person of color or may be oppressed because of her ability or class.  She is also oppressed because she is a child.  Although her status as a child is a part of her identity that she will outgrow, it is connected to her other identities – and together they can create a deep rooted set of barriers.

Ultimately, we cannot make the world a better place for the last girl unless we look at all that oppresses her including the power that adults have over children – adultism.  On one hand, it is the hardest form of oppression to confront because it is us who are the Continue reading

Book review: Sex is a Funny Word

By Brittany Lafirira, Youth Advocate, HOPE Works

One thing I will always be thankful for is my love of reading. This is something that my parents have encouraged from a very young age and something that follows me today. I read a variety of different things and enjoy when I can share my love of books with other people. One book that I have read recently and enjoyed is the book called Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth.

sex is a funny word

The very first page of the book is a letter to the grown up reader. It talks about how this book is meant to be read over time and that it is meant to be inclusive and non judgmental.  Each section starts with a comic that Continue reading

Trauma, the Brain, and Why the Positive Impact We Can Have on Kids Is so Important!

~ by Allyson Scanlon, Family & Youth Advocacy Specialist, Clarina Howard Nichols Center

Existing within all of us, no matter our age, are instinctual protective modes that kick in when our bodies and minds perceive us to be in some type of danger. These instinctive reactions can make daily functioning difficult for anyone, but can be especially damaging for children as crucial development is interrupted. Children also have less life experience to allow for self-regulation or the ability to recognize how significant a threat any given situation actually is to their safety and well-being. Thus, in homes where there is on-going intimate partner or sexual violence, children are actually being exposed to chronic trauma. Chronic trauma can cause children to develop many instinctual survival skills. Unfortunately, these skills meant to protect often interfere with healthy brain development, and can even have a lasting impact on how they will live their lives as adults.

Our brains develop 80-90% during ages 0-5. This time period is extremely critical – adverse experiences can literally stunt brain development in kids as chaotic environments cause our amygdala (also thought of as our “reptilian” brain) to overcompensate signaling our “fight/flight/freeze” response. In turn, children are constantly in a toxic state of stress, or sensing they are in danger. The hippocampus, another more primitive part of our brain, cannot function properly when the amygdala is signaling constant alarm. What all of this looks like in terms of behaviors in kids we may work with is an inability to focus, difficulties with speech and memory, behaviors often resulting in our labeling kids as “trouble” or a “problem child” such as outbursts, aggression, high anxiety/overactive startle response, and/or a child may be perceived to have attention deficits. These children may also revert to behaviors they have outgrown such as trouble Continue reading

Horses for the Heart

by Matt Renaud, Youth Advocate at AWARE

Since the beginning of this summer, I have been co-facilitating an equine assisted learning program for some of the kids I work with at AWARE.  This program has been co-facilitated by youth advocates at AWARE in the past before I started working here a year ago, but this summer has been my first experience with the program – and also with horses.

The first time I brought a kid to work with Tonda Bryant, former AWARE advocate and certified EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) instructor, I think I may have been more intimidated by the horses than the kid was.  I’ve always grown up around and been fond of animals, but I’ve never had the opportunity to ride a horse or even be up close to one.  The kid I was working with that day strolled into the paddock as soon as the fence was opened and walked right up to the three horses, so I followed suit.

Co-facilitating this program has made a huge impact on me because I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about horses that I instantly feel comfortable and confident around them now – to the point where I see them almost as big, friendly dogs.  The real impact the horses have made, though, has been on the kids that I work with.  Continue reading

Having “the talk”

by Brittany Lafirara, Youth Advocate, H.O.P.E Works

I am not a parent, but as a young twentysomething, I can remember sitting down and having my mom have “the talk” with me. She talked to me about changing bodies and what growing into a young woman involves. She even checked out books from the library. I remember being embarrassed and basically listening enough to get the information and leaving as quick as possible. As far as I know this was a onetime event (or I blocked the others out)!  We talked about it in a very scientific and developmental way. I often wonder what it would be like to have been more comfortable talking about human development and sexuality with an adult figure.  These conversations are so hard for adults and youth, but they can actually help prevent sexual abuse and also teach children and youth the language, tools and foundation to reach out for help if they need to.

When working with youth I try to find a way to connect hard conversations with the world around us. With Bill Cosby and the Duggar Family being in the news recently, Continue reading

Sexuality Education is a Life-Long Process

by Sarah Elliott, Sexual Violence Specialist, The Advocacy Program at Umbrella (Newport Office)

Having just completed my first WholeSomeBodies workshop, I believe that this is the key to getting sex education into schools. After seeing participants’ realize how much the world impacts us as adults, and even more so as children, it’s evident that this is a workshop anyone working with children should attend.

As an undergrad, in order to graduate I had to take “Seminar in Educational Inquiry” and complete a final research project. I did mine on why sex education needed to be taught beginning at an early age and continued as a set program throughout the school years. At that point in my life I had never done advocacy and the only sex education I got was the “puberty video” in sixth grade and family health and wellness my junior year of high school. I had taken Intro to Psychology and Human Growth and Development as college courses but other than that, I had no idea what the world of sexuality education meant. I recently read over the paper I wrote, dated December 3, 2008, and from what I have learned since working here and attending many trainings, I was actually on the right track. Some of my information is not quite accurate and could use updating, but for the most part, even at that point in my life seven years ago, I knew something needed to change. I also knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to do. In my 2008 paper I said,

“Sex ed is difficult to teach because controversy surrounds the subject from religious, parental and societal perspectives. If a parent does not want his child to learn about sex, can the school override him? Students are sent to school to learn what is right, so is it all right for a parent to deny his child the right to learn, when sex ed is only a subject Continue reading