The Journey to becoming a Child Abuse Therapist
In this month’s “Let the Words Fall Out”, you hear from Meghan Hurley, LCSW, who is one of River Bridge’s Mental Health Therapists working with child victims of abuse. Recently she had her book, “Who’s the Boss of this Body?” published and available on Amazon, and she has created a podcast based off her popular class, “Ten Tips Every Parent Should Know to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse”, available on iTunes and Soundcloud. In her article, Meghan explains her journey to becoming a therapist working with such a delicate and often heart-breaking topic, and her journey to providing parents and caregivers with the support to talk about sexual abuse without scaring children, or prematurely giving them information about sex.
Upon receiving my MSW from the University of Chicago I would never have imagined that I would end up specializing in child sexual abuse. I wanted to work with at-risk youth, and to help them get on the right track through adventure based experiential ed, or therapeutic recreation. I found a perfect fit – working at a residential program with young women who were committed into the juvenile justice system. They got to raft, rock climb, ski, hike…. all in an effort to help expand their view of the world and motivate them to make proactive changes in their lives. What I did not expect was to find that nearly all of the girls who came through my program were victims of sexual abuse. I quickly had to reevaluate and study. I did everything I could to find out the best therapeutic approaches to help these young women find their road to resiliency.
I was fortunate enough to find new opportunities within Garfield County’s Child Welfare Department. This agency was able to provide me with an immense amount of amazing training opportunities to expand my knowledge. Additionally it was the front lines in that if a child in this county was sexually abused I would have contact with them. Between my newfound learning and being blessed with incredible mentors I was able to gain enough trust and credibility that youth were willing to open up and share their stories with me Listening to their experiences, and those of their families, is ultimately what gave me my expertise in this field. For this I am forever indebted to my clients who trusted me enough to teach me.
As I grew professionally I also entered into a new chapter of my life – motherhood. And as my children grew I began to see my learning from my clients reflected in my parenting. I started telling my kids what no one had told my clients – that sometimes people break the rules and want to look at or touch a kids private parts and if this happens it is never a kids fault. I told them that sometimes when this happens a kid is so scared they will be in trouble that they don’t tell, and this makes the problem so much worse. Not only did a bad thing happen, but they can’t even get support for it and this is why secrets are never safe. And I also started to teach them that they are the boss of their bodies and they don’t have to do anything (like sitting on Santa’s lap) that gives them an “uh oh” feeling.
I thought quite a bit about sharing these ideas but just seemed too busy to put anything together. But then a fire was lit when in 2011, a sexually violent predator moved into Garfield County. He was required to be present at a community meeting and almost 100 concerned citizens showed up in an effort to keep their community safe. Widespread Panic ensued and River Bridge Regional Center was fielding a lot of calls from concerned citizens afraid for their children. What I knew was that this man moving into the area was really not elevating the risk to most children in the community, and if he were to offend, it would be using the same tactics as he did before. Building a relationship with a child’s mother, convincing her that he was safe, and then grooming the child. It became very clear to me that many parents were totally misdirected and relying on the sex offender registry to protect their kids, and relying on stranger danger as the best form of sexual abuse prevention. I wanted to offer parents an accurate perspective of how sexual abuse happens and to address many of the myths that have perpetuated this social abomination. So I sat down and came up with 10 Things that Every Parent Should Know. And my 10 Tips For Sexual Abuse Prevention class was created.
Since I started presenting this class in 2011 I have trained caregivers all over Garfield County and beyond. One request that I often got was for children’s book recommendations. There were some books that addressed body safety, and others that talked about secrecy, but none that really had all of the messages I was trying to get across. Unfortunately some of the books were just downright scary with descriptions of abuse in too much detail. And others had the potential to do more harm than good, like trying to simplify that kids just need to yell and tell and then shaming them if they failed to do this. So finally I got around to writing my own children’s book that had everything I wanted to say, and said it in a way that is not scary or upsetting, and certainly did not place any blame or shame on the child. But the hardest thing about creating a children’s book is getting it illustrated, since it is the illustrations that are ultimately going to capture the attention of a child. Fortunately for me, my amazing cousin, Adam Arriola creative director at FINAO Agency made the perfect illustrations. Finally “Who’s the Boss of This Body” was published through Amazon in June of 2019. And then I realized that if people were buying the book online they really should have access to the 10 Tips class. In the past year, I dedicated myself to creating the recordings and 10 Tips for Sexual Abuse Prevention which is now available on Soundcloud and Apple iTunes, you can access it through the RBRC website here.
I wish I could say that now I can rest, but I already have some new goals for 2020. I hope to soon have the book available in Spanish on Amazon. And then of course with that I would love to have the podcast available in Spanish as well but that is a whole other effort. I also have 10 Tips for parents of teens that I would like to have recorded some time in the next year. But my work will never be done. At least until we rid ourselves of this relentless epidemic. Even though I am a realist and I recognize that we will never be able to stop sex offenders from having their twisted fantasies, I do believe that we have the power to create a new generation of youth who will not be silenced by them. I believe that we as parents, and as a society, have the potential to bring sexual abuse out of the shadows. If we can stop victim blaming and shaming these kids into silence we will be able to make significant progress. Right now sex offenders can rely on the fact that kids won’t tell. This can and will change. So do your part and get educated and spread the word! Let us together end the silence in which sexual abuse thrives.
Meghan Hurley Backofen, LCSW
CORE Sexual Abuse Treatment Provider
River Bridge Regional Center
Garfield County Department of Human Services