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The Parents Yap About Sex Abuse: What have we learned from the shocking news in Wakefield?

We are just as shaken up as the rest of the town about the recent revelations of child abuse at the hands of a day care provider in Wakefield. This week, we share our thoughts on what we do to keep our kids safe.

Editor's Note: This week's Parent Yap column discusses the sex abuse case against John Burbine of Wakefield. . Along with covering the legal aspects of this case, Wakefield Patch has also spoken with a number of people who met the Burbines. For example, this mother met Burbine a couple of times at an area play group, and this one found nothing when she checked for Burbine on the sex offender registry because he was classified as level 1. Complete coverage of the case can be viewed at this topic page.

Melissa Schools
You know how, sometimes, when it’s been revealed that a person is a murderer, neighbors react with shock, and say something like, “But he was always so quiet! He never bothered anybody.”? Well, I’ve never heard anyone say that about the revelation of a sexual predator. Not that I’ve heard people say, “I always knew that person was a pedophile,” but invariably there are people who say, “I always thought there was something weird/creepy/off about that guy!”

What truly shocks me is that someone as sick as a sexual predator could evade detection long enough to rack up numerous victims and leave a trail of irreparable damage. In some cases, we have seen outright cover-up, as with sexually abusive clergy- most notably, but by no means limited to, the ranks of the Catholic Church.

In other cases, as in the Sandusky/Penn State case, we learn that people in authority chose to simply look the other way, going only as far as ensuring there would be no liability issues on the Penn State campus. No thought was given to the scores of underprivileged boys left to fend for themselves in Sandusky’s nonprofit organization supposedly meant to help them. And don’t even get me started about family members who turn a blind eye to the activities of sexual predators. The kindest thing I could imagine is that heartbreak and delusion makes them believe their own blindness. That, plus fear and cowardice.

I’m trying to think of anything more repugnant than a pedophile and I am coming up empty. I don’t think the word “diabolical” is used much, nor thrown around lightly, but I think it applies here. That may be another reason why someone would shrink from reporting or investigating further into questionable behavior of another toward children: the fear of wrongly accusing someone of this most repugnant of crimes.

So, what are parents to do? Avoid all people that give us a “weird/creepy/off” vibe and hope for the best? It seems there are no guaranteed steps to avoid sexual abuse of our children except for total isolation, but there are some things that can give us a bit more peace of mind, like involvement in our kids’ activities and knowing who their friends and friends’ parents are. The average family is pulled in so many directions in a given day, though, that it is hard to stay on top of it all. That’s not an excuse, it’s a reality. We count heavily on the measures put in place to protect our kids, like CORI forms for school volunteers and kids’ sports coaches. We expect that those around us will be attuned to signs that something’s not quite right and say something in our absence.

My heart goes out to the parents and children victimized by John Burbine and his wife. I am grateful that at least these revolting allegations against them are out in open, and hope that if any good can come out of it, we will not only see improvement and changes in legislation to further protect children, but also that others will be emboldened to come forward if they know of misconduct and not protect predators with silence.

 

Tasha Schlake Festel
Clearly we can all agree that the horrors that surfaced in Wakefield last week are heartbreaking and terrifying. As a parent – as a human – I cannot understand how a grown man and his permissive wife could perform such unspeakable acts on anyone, much less young children.

I think we are all left with questions whenever anything like this comes to light. How can someone do this? How do the children heal? Why did this go on for so long? Why didn't we know? What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen to our children?

I don't have the answers to those questions. But I am trying to answer the last one for myself and my family. The revelations of the last week make me wonder if the reason nothing like this – or anything bad at the hands of someone else – has never happened to my children is sheer luck.

I always have believed – and continue to – that  people are overwhelmingly good and decent and will try their hardest to do the right thing. I expect and almost always receive the best of people. This has allowed me to lead the happy life I lead, surrounded with friends and in a community of which I feel honored to be a part. I intend to pass on this inherent trust and goodwill in humanity to my children, but I will also tell them to listen to that little voice in their heads if something ever seems “off.” As Melissa stated, while no one ever expects something like this, in this situation, everyone agreed that this guy was creepy.

My son was just 12 weeks old and my daughter only two when I hired my nanny. I scoured websites for the right candidates. I posted ads on Craig's List. I conducted phone interviews. I met people in person. I checked references. I was thorough.

I thought.

It never occurred to me to go through an agency, or check the sex offender's registry, or do a background check, or hell, even do a simple Google search. I am so trusting of others - and of my gut - that I didn't do my due-diligence. Even despite my own experience of being "handled inappropriately" by an adult in my past, I never took steps to make sure nothing happened to my own children. My kids are so fortunate that their idiot mother didn't put them in harm's way through well-meaning negligence. I am lucky.

They are lucky.

My children have both gone to daycare. My daughter has been to four different places - one in Jamaica Plain and three in Wakefield. My son has been to one in Wakefield.  They were all licensed... I think. And the centers all had rigorous screening measures before allowing the teachers to interact with the children... I assume. <sigh> Yet again, my kids were lucky. Other than a visit to the centers, a meeting with the teachers, and a few quick conversations with other parents, I didn't do anything besides trusting my instincts to make sure these people and places were OK.

My children both take classes and go to camps. Same story. They're lucky. When deciding on where they should go, I confirm that the curriculum, schedule, and cost fit our needs. I've never investigated a single person other than meeting them and checking-in with my gut.

My children play sports. Would-be coaches must fill out C.O.R.I. forms. That's enough, right? Yet again, luck and a quick gut-check.

As it turns out, my gut has served me well. Our nanny was wonderful. The kids and I adored her and she was the only nanny we ever had. She gave us four years of great care and companionship. I can also say that the teachers, sitters, and coaches I've left my children with have never disappointed me. I've met them all. I like them all. I trust them all.

But I may do a quick Google search, just to give my gut a little back-up.

 

Paul Simpson
One of the difficult parts of parenting is putting your children under the care and supervision of other adults.  Unless you have unlimited time to devote and know everything about everything, it’s a necessity if you want to expose your kids to a variety of activities and experiences.  Not including school teachers, I routinely entrust my kids to other adults—coaches, music teachers, camp counselors, scout leaders, CCD teachers, martial arts instructors, art teachers, tutors, and other parents.  I do not have a dossier with an up-to-date CORI on each of these individuals, and I don’t think all the organizations that employ these people do either.  Even if I tried to take appropriate measures to get background information (as the mother of a boy tutored by John Burbine attempted), it doesn’t necessarily mean I’d be able to satisfy my curiosity.  So, how do I sleep at night?

First, however naïve it may sound, I like to think most people are good, including those who teach and care for children.

Next, I believe most organizations involving adult-child interaction want to protect kids and will take measures to do so.  Also, on a more cynical, pragmatic note, business owners aren’t going to risk their livelihood without making sure it is safe for those in their employ to be around children.

While I may not be able to do a formal investigation on my own, I talk to other parents who have used a service, patronized a business, or know a coach/sensei/tutor.  I tend to put a lot of weight on user experiences for just about everything.  If a trusted friend tells me someone or some business is safe, I’ll take their word for it.  I know other parents in town use this vetting process, and there’s a certain guitar teacher whose growing list of local students is a testament to this word-of-mouth referral system.

Another factor, as Tasha mentioned, simply is to trust your gut.  Even if everything else seemed on the level, I’d take my kids out of any situation if I felt uncomfortable about the adult supervision.  I’m happy to say I haven’t had to do so.

Scarily, even if I follow all these steps, I know my kids aren’t 100% safe unless they are with me.  Their safety starts at home.  We’ve had discussions about what constitutes inappropriate touching and to never go anywhere alone with another adult.  They’ve been through Stranger Danger classes so they’ll be prepared to respond in case an adult tries to hurt them.  They also know they can talk to my wife and me about anything, so when the Wakefield scandal popped up during the news, we talked about it.  I reassured them that they are safe, and I let them know the man is in jail and will never hurt another child.

Thankfully, cases like this don’t come along so close to home very often.  I hope to never have to talk with them (even in such simple terms) about an act like this again.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow my protocol, keep my guard up, and hope for the best.

 

Regina Martine
The recent events in Wakefield have brought up a lot of questions about who is caring for children in our community. I certainly wouldn’t leave my children with anyone I had a bad feeling about, or in a situation that I didn’t think was safe, but how can we know they will be safe? All three of my kids went to licensed pre-schools, and my oldest went to daycare as a baby. At each of these childcare centers, I was told at great length about how they meet all the licensing requirements of the state. I heard about years of teacher’s experience, and ratios of children to adults, but I don’t remember hearing about the background of the employees, other than the early-education training they were required to have. I’m also sure I didn’t ask.

In the public schools and with town-run sports, all volunteers, coaches, and any parent who will be working with students must be “CORIed” before they can begin. I assume that the same holds true for school employees. What about licensed daycare providers? And what does a CORI check reveal? Would level 1 sex offenders be included? Or are those records sealed? I don’t know. And until now, I have never thought about it.

I know the YMCA has special training for their employees who work with children to avoid the possibility or even the appearance of misconduct.  Their policies include forbidding an adult to be alone with a child, and there are strict rules involving diapering and taking kids to the bathroom. I know that in the drop-in babysitting room at the Reading Y, the staff members aren’t allowed to change diapers or go into the bathroom with a child. I hate that we need these rules, but I am glad the rules are there to protect the kids.

One of the reasons I felt so good about the daycare and preschools that my children attended is that they all had an “open door policy.” Parents were encouraged to drop by anytime, unannounced, to check up on their child or just to visit. These caregivers had nothing to hide.  The classrooms and the infant care area all had big windows so that the room was visible from other classrooms or the reception area of the center. My children were well cared for and happy, and I never once worried about their safety. We have been very lucky.

Laurie Hunt December 13, 2012 at 01:02 PM
I think we should also be harsher on those that allow this to happen. Heads should roll over this as I honestly think if this monster were treated differently years ago this many not have happened. Additionally why are we not seeing more photos of his wife? I don't think I would know her if I walked into her. We should all be very familiar with her too so no one allows her near children again. Clearly not having a license didn't stop her so lets be sure we all know exactly what she looks like too. Great article.
Tasha Schlake Festel December 13, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Laurie, you're right. I don't know what the wife looks like either, and she's also been charged with some serious crimes. Even if she's not "creepy" she's certainly not trustworthy, allowing her husband to be with children. I have a feeling we'll learn a lot more as the story unfolds. It really is so upsetting.
Victoria Clair December 13, 2012 at 03:57 PM
As a Family Therapist in my former professional life, and now an at-home Mom of two kids with a third on the way, I want to point out that some parents are challenged with limited resources if a nanny/helper/tutor/etc seems creepy and there needs to be a change of routine or schedule. Especially for single or working parents who might not have instant flexibility. Oddly enough, we as humans are the only species who routinely ignore those gut instincts that tell us when something is off. We rationalize certain fears or threats because we're afraid to offend or make errors of judgment. My hope is that parents can openly communicate with each other where kids are involved. Make connections with other parents to cast a protective umbrella over our children as a whole. Offer help to parents with fewer resources if possible, and trust, trust, trust those instincts! This kind of conversation and awareness is a good start.
Tricia December 14, 2012 at 05:55 PM
As a parent of a son who was abused at age 10, I can tell you that the only thing that could have protected him was more education. If a child is old enough to go away to camp (by the way an elite camp that all my boys attended in Minnesota) they are old enough to be told that these people exist. You have to go beyond good touch bad touch. You have to go into exactly what some people might do and how they frighten the child into "not telling". They have to know that massage is not acceptable and that they MUST tell another adult immediately. My son is now 22 and we just found out after years of depression. By the way you don't know who these people are as they are often the pillars of society.

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