Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Active Bystanding: It’s a Jungle Out There!

We said that Bystander Prevention is getting way out ahead of any harm to a child by being alert to potential boundary violations and grooming, and essentially heading them off at the pass.

One fine summer morning my partner and I went to the big farmers market at our local university. We go there just about every Saturday.

We buy most of our produce from a particular vendor that we like. I’ll call him James. He is a wonderful person and he practices solid ethics at his farm. We’re not the kind of friends that go places together, but we see him and his family every week. That Saturday morning we were in their booth at the same time as this other fellow who was obviously a family friend. You could tell they knew each other well. James and the man chatted a bit, and then James turned away to wait on another customer. My partner and I were nearby in line.

All I can say is that this family friend hugged and touched the young teen daughter in a way that alarmed both of us. I’ll call it near-groping. It did not look good at all. The girl was definitely squirming and cringing, and I was about to crawl out of my skin.
I’ll admit we were both paralyzed in that moment. Neither one of us did anything. It was a brief exchange and the girl managed to extract herself in probably less than 5 seconds, but we saw what we saw. We paid the older son for our vegetables, and as we walked away we checked in with each other. Yes, we were both aghast.

Now as you know, I’m in the sexual abuse prevention business, so I check myself regularly about my reactions. I worry I can be quick on the trigger. Also, I really didn’t know what I should do in that moment. We went home.

In hindsight I can say that what we decided to do next was not what I would do today, some 4 years later. We wrote an anonymous letter to the father. We told him we had been to his booth and exactly what we saw – that his daughter had been hugged and touched by the man in a way that appeared sexual and was definitely uncomfortable for her. We described her reaction. We described the family friend. We asked him to please check in with his daughter about the relationship and we enclosed the Darkness to Light’s booklet The 5 Steps to Protecting our Children.

I’ll give myself maybe a B- for that one.

Today I would be a lot more direct. I honestly don’t remember why we sent the letter anonymously. I still wouldn’t say something right there in public, out of concern for the girl feeling ashamed; but I’d call the father by phone to share what I saw. I’d do this because I’d want to open a dialogue in case he needed advice, or just so that he could process what I was telling him. I’d also want to be as sure as I could be that yes, he’d actually talk to his daughter. And I wouldn’t second-guess myself so much about my “bias.” But at least we did something and what we did was pretty strong.

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