Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 5
A CALMing effect: A local child abuse prevention center helps give kids a voice
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
The Child Abuse Listening Mediation Center (CALM) in Santa Maria is a quiet space. The walls are painted bright, cheerful colors, and the floor is sprinkled with rugs of varying eye-catching patterns. Toy centers in the lobby offer places where children can explore the unique and exciting playthings offered. This is a space that seems to capture the beauty and innocence of childhood—a calming area to help distract the troubled and abused children who walk through CALM’s doors.
CALM Executive Director Cecilia Rodriguez has been with the organization for the duration of her 27-year career. A petite woman with long hair, Rodriguez’s soothing demeanor must be a breath of fresh air for the children she speaks with.
But don’t let her smaller stature fool you: Rodriguez exudes a tremendous amount of passion when it comes to preventing and educating the public on child abuse in all of its forms. The director spends a good portion of her time conducting forensic interviews with children who have endured some form of abuse, whether it be mental, physical, sexual, or all of the above. She is trained to ask questions that do not lead the children. Instead, Rodriguez asks questions that help them open up about their experiences.
When the Sun reached out to CALM about discussing child abuse suspicions involving teachers and/or coaches, Rodriguez was more than happy to offer insight on the issue, citing education as the biggest component for prevention.
“Relations between teachers/coaches and students is child abuse, period,” Rodriguez said, matter-of-factly. “At 16, the individual is not a consenting adult; whether people say she is consenting or was provocative doesn’t matter. It does not work that way.”
Rodriguez said that in these kinds of situations, the motivations are very individual. But with teachers and coaches, it comes down to an abuse of power and position, and manipulating vulnerable targets who are not likely to speak up.
“When kids are abused, it’s most often by someone they know or trust,” Rodriguez said.
The director said the case is even more complicated when it comes to teenagers who are victims of sexual abuse such as this.
“With teenagers, it could be that he/she thought they love him, was infatuated, or had conflicted feelings about liking the attention,” Rodriguez said.
In other instances, adolescents don’t speak out about the abuse because they don’t want to get their abusers in trouble. It could also be that the abuser is the only person who is nice to them and they don’t want to lose that sense of feeling “special.”
“It is very complicated, but it is never OK,” Rodriguez asserted. “The adult is always the responsible party for maintaining teacher-student boundaries.”
Cases of child abuse are never easy, and they are far more common than one might think. But situations involving teachers and students—“higher profile” abuse cases—are incredibly complex and have a resounding impact on the surrounding community. Rodriguez has interviewed plenty of children who have experienced similar situations.
“It is so shocking when something like that happens, it can be very hard for a community to let that in,” Rodriguez said. “To think that a man we all know and love can do something like this is an assault on our person.”
Rodriguez said for a community dealing with this, it always comes down to a violation of trust. When it comes to abuse involving educators, the parents’ trust in schools is also violated.
“Parents send their children to school every day thinking they will be safe, [and] then this happens,” Rodriguez said.
She did add that trust is something that can be recovered, given plenty of treatment and proper support. Perhaps the biggest effect on the community is how instances of child abuse make people question their judgment of others.
“We think we know who abusers are; we have this stereotype,” Rodriguez said. “When our image of who a ‘pervert’ is is shattered, it really undermines people’s sense of safety.”
The director added that she feels bad for the “good guys” who have to prove over and over again that they are trustworthy.
The road back from these unfortunate incidences is tough; Rodriguez said it requires a rebuilding of trust to overcome and a vigilant community.
“Abuse happens, sexual abuse happens, but we cannot be blind to it,” Rodriguez said. “We have to acknowledge that it happened and talk about how we can continue to protect children.”
Rodriguez said parents need to assure their children that it is never OK for someone to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
“Parents teach kids a lot about ‘stranger danger,’ but not that it could be anybody they know, love, or trust,” she said. “Safety involving people in general needs to be stressed ... ."
In one sense, Rodriguez speculates that parents may be afraid to talk with their kids about this for fear of shattering their child’s innocence.
“But not teaching your children about sexual abuse is like not teaching them about stoplights,” Rodriguez. “At CALM, we want everyone to stand up for kids and not be silent.”
Breaking the silence ties in perfectly with CALM’s “I Won’t be Silent Campaign,” a series of events being held throughout April, which is Child Abuse Awareness month. CALM is host to a series of events, including a ladies’ dinner and open house at the Santa Maria facility. Rodriguez said CALM is also holding a silent auction on its website all month to help raise awareness for abuse. All money raised goes back to the organization.
Rodriguez has been working with Santa Barbara-based CALM for 10 years, conducting interviews and assisting law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office in some cases. The director said they finally opened the North County CALM facility in Santa Maria five years ago, after the organization decided to act on its mission to serve the entire county.
“One day, I interviewed a child that witnessed the torture and murder of his 3-year-old cousin by his mother,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a case that stuck with me. It was also what I call my ‘Claire Miles’ moment. I kept thinking of how huge the needs of the children in Santa Maria are, and decided I can’t keep waiting for someone to provide what these children need.”
The “Claire Miles” moment goes back to the humble beginnings of CALM, which was originally started in a kitchen. Rodriguez said Miles was the wife of a Santa Barbara doctor who operated on a child abuse victim. The story stuck with Miles to the point that she put a second phone in her kitchen and used the newspaper to tell stressed parents to call her for support.
The organization continues to grow, providing education, therapy, prevention, and treatment services to thousands of families and children across the county. Rodriguez said CALM has been welcomed to Santa Maria with open arms. And, despite the sometimes-difficult nature of her job, Rodriguez remains committed to stopping further child abuse.
“I am the beginning of healing for these children,” Rodriguez said. “I am the first step for them getting the help they need to move forward.”
Contact Staff Writer Kristina Sewell at firstname.lastname@example.org.