Looking to empower the laity, a Catholic family with police and teaching careers developed a free program to train parents how to spot grooming for sex abuse.
Despite all of the news coverage about the sex abuse crisis in the Church, one family realized that nothing concrete was being done to prevent further abuse. Church Militant spoke with James Garcia, one of the developers of Abuse Prevention, to learn about the program.
Garcia said his father has had a long career in law enforcement and the family has had a long-time association with various law enforcement agencies. Garcia decided to contact these federal and state agencies to see what resources they had to support the community. His mother and sister are both early education specialists with many years of classroom experience — including in Catholic schools and ministries.
With their combined knowledge, Garcia, his mother and sister worked together to develop the materials. He said they also used "invaluable" contributions from victims. The full interview is below.
CM: What is the program?
JG: The program is a child safety course for parents who have children in contact with the Catholic Church. Our specific goal is to give parents the tools to understand the threats that could arise in their community.
It is also important parents have an opportunity to contribute to and channel their unique talents during this time of crisis. We do not want them to continue to feel underappreciated or not listened to.
Obviously, the prevention of any forms of abuse is the ultimate goal, but the method of judging our efforts will be how many church members we manage to train.
CM: Who is it geared to?
JG: We are targeting the average Catholic parents who see what is going on around them and want to do all they can to learn the skills of protection.
This program is intended to be laity-focused because it is their children we are working to protect. Although we have had input from clinical and law enforcement professionals, it is the parents and grandparents who must step up. The Church hierarchy and leadership class have shown themselves incapable and totally out-of-touch with the issue.
Children are welcome to attend and we encourage all parents to talk to their children about boundary issues and related topics at home. People from other faiths or denominations who are interested in skill building can also attend.
CM: How did you come up with the idea?
JG: In hearing the reaction of the laity, compared to the response of the clergy, we realized the parishioners' concerns were not being addressed. This is an issue that is of primary importance because the laity is the most threatened and has the most to be concerned about. Many Catholics were full of emotion and driven for action to be taken. The problem was there was little opportunity for them to express this emotion.
CM: How long have you worked on it and did you have help funding the program?
JG: We began working on the program the day the Pennsylvania grand jury report came out in August. We contacted all federal, state and local authorities to see what prevention tools they had available and what resources they would recommend. Through their guidance, we were able to gather the necessary knowledge to feel confident moving forward with the program.
We are fortunate to have an established organizational structure in place with our community outreach organization, The Stuffed Zoo, that we are running Abuse Prevention through. The funding for the program has come from the operating budget that and through other fundraising efforts.
CM: Aren't there other groups out there that can educate people, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)?
JG: The NCMEC is a great resource but most of their tools are online. We actually contacted them and they provided one of the key pieces of text we used to create the curriculum.
The charities that provide education on child abuse prevention are moderately expensive because they are geared to administrative staff with the budget to accommodate professional training. The government and other charitable operations have many online tools but few of those are for those with personal or small group interests.
CM: How does your program work?
JG: Abuse Prevention is designed to be facilitated by the laity. Anyone interested in hosting the training would work directly with us to develop a customized training program to fit their exact needs.
The curriculum is highly interactive so parents can have experience seeing and feeling what it is like to see potential threats. Through learning basic observational skills, parents can feel secure they have the assessment ability necessary to protect their child from dangers.
Classes are hosted where we can find availability, be it homes or halls. The class begins with a quick introduction explaining the topic for the day and directions for the exercise. Participants will then observe a demonstration on the topic and ask questions about details or specifics.
Parents split into groups and role play the script they have received. The class will end with questions and comments about how things went. People can give feedback about the pros and cons, including what they would like to see in the curriculum going forward.
CM: Why is this an interactive program?
JG: There are many online tools where people can see how a predator would act. There is even more online literature which covers prevention tactics in detail. But there are very few places for parents to get a first-hand experience of what it is like being in the actual situation.
Being able to experience scenarios and practice responding to threats is an opportunity we feel is very needed and valuable.
CM: Is this group training or can parents do this with their children?
JG: We train in a group but the style of the training makes it very adaptable. Parents can take what they learn in the classes and hold training sessions at their home. We can help parents with creating an at home guidebook so they can explain fundamental rules and things to be aware of to their children.
The key is opening lines of communication so children feel comfortable bringing up subjects if questions arise. Should parents find it beneficial to bring their children, they are welcome and can be integrated into the training.
CM: What topics do you cover?
JG: We will cover everything associated with the subject of child safety. This will include, but won't be limited to, boundaries, grooming, predation, body language, situational awareness, etc.
Child safety is a very broad topic with many areas of potential focus so we will rely on the feedback from parents. The emphasis is based on covering areas parents are most concerned about and feel need to be covered. We hope they feel like the center of the process.
CM: What is the most obvious sign of grooming or abuse that most people overlook?
JG: As odd as this sounds, it is their own instinct. Parents often ignore threats because they have their guard down and think a church is the last place they would have to worry about danger.
Tactics and methods can vary between predators — depending on the power dynamic they have and the position of influence they occupy.
CM: Does your program help identify predators?
JG: We will describe and demonstrate predatory behaviors. From there, we want to provide a medium for parents to exchange ideas and experiences.
Extra eyes in a community can be incredibly advantageous — especially when people have been trained using the same technical tools. There are many aspects to being able to identify a potential predator and we are aiming to cover every angle.
CM: Is there is a cost to families or the host group?
JG: We have made a point to offer this service at no cost. We believe the last thing parents need to be having to do is pay for a service they probably never thought they would need and really should not have to pay for.
We require minimal group participation but the benefit is that we can adapt the classes to the specific needs of the community. The costs are covered by our community outreach organization and some fundraising methods we have implemented.
CM: Did you have any help from government agencies?
JG: We contacted and received material from the Center for Disease Control — the chief federal agency in charge of prevention policy. We also contacted six state attorney generals' offices, the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C, as well as 10 regional offices and one local satellite office. Our state public health agency in charge of prevention also gave us input. In addition to these government entities, we were able to have extended discussions with eight charities that specialize in prevention, two FBI profilers and numerous law enforcement members.
CM: Did you have support from the Catholic Church or any bishops?
JG: We have reached out to the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, our diocese and our local parish but we did not hear back.
Most of their existing programs are focused on providing assistance for online threats. If they decide to, we are open to the possibility of working with them in the future.
Garcia said they've had two successful events in California and have more planned in the coming weeks. Anyone interested in hosting an Abuse Prevention event should contact them through their website or leave a message at (805)704-2423. Victims can contact them confidentially with their recommendations for prevention based on their own experiences.