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An advocate for children teaches kids and parents how to spot abuse

on March 12, 2012

Twenty-five years ago, Norma Rodriguez went to a training session for the Child Assault Prevention Training Center.  When she agreed to participate in the session, she didn’t realize that two weeks of learning how to prevent and recognize child abuse would change her life.  She didn’t know that intense training would soon become her career.

“I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot about the prevention of child abuse and neglect,” she says now. “It was more to it than knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of different types of abuse, what reports should be made and who those agencies were.”

For Rodriguez, learning the CAP, or Child Assault Prevention, module was different because CAP included the kids in the process of learning how to recognize the threats to their own personal safety.

On a recent rainy Wednesday morning, Rodriguez walked into a small classroom at Tennyson High School in Hayward to continue spreading what she knows about child abuse prevention.

Wearing a red turtleneck, a blue jean jacket, and a golden headband that held back parts of her thick black hair, Rodriguez took out pamphlets and fact sheets from her leopard bag and prepared to speak to the small group of Latina women at the school’s health center.

At 9:30 a.m., it was show time, and Rodriguez didn’t miss a beat.  She calmly walked to the front of the room, looked around, handed out a packet of papers, and got started. One of the papers she gave out read, “If You Suspect Child Abuse.”   The topic was serious, the parents were intrigued, and Rodriguez conducted the session with a confident cool as the ladies asked her questions about abuse.  She often recounted stories about things has learned as a CAPTC employee.

Rodriguez has worked since that workshop 25 years ago for the CAPTC, a program of the East Bay Agency for Children (EBAC) which provides training workshops to parents, children and youth services providers about how to protect children from child abuse.  When the program started in 1981 it was the first program of its kind in California, and the Oakland Unified School District was the first school to use the CAP module.

The CAP program hasn’t had state funding since 1991. Since losing state funding, CAP has been supported by the EBAC.

“These are issues that anyone can experience,” Rodriguez said.  “Very few programs like this are still allowed access in the classroom, but agencies like ours are still needed.”

As a parent, Rodriguez said she would teach CAP techniques to her son, and one day those lessons came in handy.

“There was always the parent part of me that would ask, ‘Do children really get this?’ she said.  “One day I hid in his classroom so he couldn’t see me, and I was surprised at how much he’d remembered. That’s when I knew that it was working.”

While her son appeared to know what to do in a classroom setting, he‘s also had to apply his CAP skills in real life.

“My son was six years old,” Norma said.  “We went to a shopping center to get an Icee.  Just in the time it took me to turn off the car, pull the keys out of the ignition and step out of the car, my son was already off and running down the sidewalk. When I got out of the car, I saw him running back toward me, and the expression on his face.  I will never forget.”’

Rodriguez looked up from her desk, lightly pushed her gray bangs out of her face, then looked at me and continued.

“As he got closer, he said very angrily, ‘There are two men in that car over there, and they said they would pay me $50 if I took them for a ride around the block,’” Rodriguez said. “In that moment, my CAP training skills kicked in.”

First, she assured her son she believed him, told him she was proud of him, and went to a local pizza parlor to call the police. Although the police couldn’t arrest the men because they had not actually taken her son, she was proud that her son knew what to do.

That night, Rodriguez and her son were watching the news and he asked, “Mom, am I going to be on the news?”  That’s when she says it hit her. “I asked myself, ‘What if I had not heard about the CAP program?  What if I had not given my child this information?’ Maybe he might have been on the news,” she said.

While Rodriguez’s son knew what to do, there are still young people who don’t know how to deal with uncomfortable situations. Rodriguez, and many of her coworkers are always reaching out to educate members of the community about child abuse and neglect.

“Children hear a lot about stranger safety and they hear a lot of false information,” said Holly Cobbold, a program coordinator for CAP, after she spoke to 21 third graders at Warm Springs Elementary School in Fremont about how to deal with abuse.  “They don’t hear about how to keep themselves safe if they know the person.  Children too often think the only person that’s going to harm them is someone they don’t know. In reality, its often someone who they know.”

At Warm Springs, the students and CAPTC workers played different roles to show students that abuse doesn’t have to come from adults, and it doesn’t have to be physical. The workshop leaders talk to all students in the school who have permission from their parents to attend the workshop.

“We don’t want to frighten children,” Cobbald said.  “We want them to feel empowered.  Empowerment is really the important when we’re sharing as much information as we can with student.  We want them to plan a role in keeping themselves safe and not be solely dependent on adults.  Adults are often the perpetrators, so they need to know.”

As Rodriguez wrapped up her day at Tennyson, the moms chatted with each other.  “This was a great presentation,” one said.

Rodriguez handed out evaluation sheets and prepared to leave.  But soon after she began to put her things away, discussions started up and she was being bombarded with questions.

“How do you report abuse about someone else’s child?”

“What should we do if the teacher is the abuser?”

Rodriguez immediately put her things down, faced the women and continued the conversation that changed her life over two decades ago.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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