09/29/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Q&A with Jetta Bernier

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We sat down with Jetta Bernier, to discuss the upcoming “Innovative Strategies to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse in Public and Private Schools” conference being held in Boston on October 20, of which CS&A is a sponsor.

Jetta Bernier has led Massachusetts Citizens for Children as its Executive Director since 1984, having provided leadership in the areas of child abuse prevention, family support, and child welfare reform. She directs the Enough Abuse Campaign, a citizen education and mobilization effort working through the MA Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Partnership to prevent child sexual abuse in communities across the state. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation and the Independent School Task Force on Educator Sexual Misconduct formed by NAIS and TABS.

CS&A: Tell us about your background as a child advocate.

Jetta: Though my background is in psychology, I decided early on that my skills could best be used to work on changing systems that affect children and families rather than on counseling individuals. As a mental health planner operating within a local agency supported by the CT Department of Mental Health, I decided to conduct an in-depth study on child abuse in a five-town economically depressed area outside of New Haven. I incorporated the concerns of the many people and organizations I spoke to in a report whose findings were broadly promoted by the local press. Citizens rallied to support our recommendations. As a result, systems improved, services expanded, and citizens began to support prevention efforts. I learned then the power of data to motivate and effect positive change for vulnerable children. I came to see that child abuse is the linchpin of many of our social problems and that preventing it and working to ensure safe and healthy childhoods for all children was the most important work on the planet. I still believe that and it’s what has continued to drive me all these many years.

CS&A: Describe the work you do in Massachusetts around these issues facing our schools.

Jetta: Since we launched the Enough Abuse Campaign in 2002 under a five-year grant from the CDC, we have been hard at work developing resources to educate parents, professionals, and communities about child sexual abuse and its prevention. We have developed several research-based, in-person training curricula for these audiences, trained hundreds of master trainers who, in turn, deliver these curricula free to thousands of individuals, and provide consultation on safe child policies for schools and youth organizations. To date, counties and communities in seven states have formally adopted the Enough Abuse Campaign model and are expanding the program to more and more areas. We also focus on legislation aimed at preventing child sexual abuse from ever occurring. For the past year, we have been working closely with Senator Joan Lovely to draft and pass an omnibus bill – S295 – which has multiple provisions to meet that goal.

CS&A: You developed an online course to meet the specific needs of school and address the challenges they face in preventing child abuse. What does the course cover and who should take it?

Jetta: Many states have passed laws mandating schools to educate their staffs about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. More are expected to follow this trend as schools are facing increased liability and penalties for not responding to and reporting suspected or disclosed cases. Teachers report, however, that they lack confidence in their ability to identify sexual abuse and to respond appropriately to suspicions.

So we developed “Enough! Preventing Child Sexual Abuse in My School” specifically to provide public and private schools with a state-of-the-field prevention curriculum that would train all school personnel about how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse – a problem the U.S. Department of Education reports is affecting nearly 10% of children and teens between kindergarten and grade 12.

Research on the interactive, one-hour course just concluded with 150 teachers in three states. It found statistically significant increases in knowledge about the problem and about the ability to identify boundary-violating behaviors. This is key since early identification of these behaviors can prevent them from escalating to reportable sexual offenses. Another statistically significant finding is that teachers indicate they are now more likely to report any suspected or disclosed cases of child sexual abuse. This is important since a previous national study found that only 11% of teachers polled said they would report a case of child sexual abuse, even if a child disclosed to them. That’s how strong the fears and biases surrounding this problem have been and those are precisely what we decided to address head-on when we developed the course.

We are hoping that this new training resource will support schools in being safe havens where students can learn, play, and grow without the threat of sexual abuse and its negative and often life-long consequences on learning and on their future physical and mental health.

CS&A: Talk about the national conference that will be taking place in here Boston in October hosted by Massachusetts Citizens for Children and The National Center for Victims of Crime.

Jetta: Over 200 education leaders, legal experts, and child abuse prevention advocates from across New England will convene in Boston on October 20th for a national conference on “Innovative Strategies to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse in Public and Private Schools.”  Topic areas will cover issues relating to training of staff and volunteers about sexual abuse and how to prevent it, screening prospective employees to eliminate unsafe applicants, developing codes of standards to identify prohibited boundary violating behaviors, and responding to suspected or disclosed cases of sexual misconduct or abuse. Goals of the event will be to gain support for this core set of safe child standards, detail plans to disseminate these standards nationally, and establish post-conference networking and technical assistance for participants once they return to their communities and schools.

For more information about the program and speakers and to register, click here.

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