“I truly believe that the child molesters killed who they could have been,” said Sally Berenzweig, M.Ed., M.A. ’95, referring to the abused women she worked with for her counseling psychology practicum at Immaculata. “Many of the ladies in our unit felt helpless, hopeless, [had] low self-esteem, [were] dually diagnosed—drugs and alcohol abuse—some were prostitutes.”
Berenzweig’s work with these women paved the way for her to later shift her focus to prevention. But a dangerous situation her 3-year-old son faced was the turning point that led her to co-found KidSafe Foundation in Boca Raton, FL and win a Jefferson Award for her prevention efforts.
Berenzweig had just had her fifth miscarriage. “My husband called our sitter (who had been watching our son since he was 6 months old and knew our fertility situations) and said, ‘I need to take my wife out for the day.’ She came over, and when we were on our way home we called the house (we always called when we were on our way home) and she said, ‘Everything is fine but, Jack got out of the house, but he is home now.’ My husband got on the phone and we were trying to get the whole story—I started crying, and all I can remember is running into the house and Jack sitting there and grabbing him and hugging him and crying.”
The Berenzweigs gradually learned what had happened. When the babysitter wasn’t watching Jack properly, “he walked out of the house and down across four streets before being found by a complete stranger,” Berenzweig said.
The man saw Jack crying and asked where he lived. Berenzweig had taught him their street name, and the man drove him home. “Thank God he was a good person,” said Berenzweig.
“It changed my and my husband’s life forever,” she said. She looked around for a safety program that her family could attend and found Cherie Benjoseph’s eight-week safety program for children and lectures for parents.
“After the lecture, I said to her, ‘Why is every parent not getting this? Why is every child not receiving this?’” said Berenzweig.
“And so after many, many meetings we got together back in about 2006. We wrote curriculum, researched, and we now have a curriculum called KidSafe for Kids, for age 4 through fifth grade.” Berenzweig and Benjoseph also co-authored two children’s books, Jack Teaches His Friends to be KidSafe! and the 2011 Literary Award-winning children’s book My Body is Special and Belongs To ME!
Benjoseph sums up KidSafe’s mission by saying, “Our goal is to raise sexually healthy kids who are comfortable with their bodies and can recognize when a boundary has been crossed, and then know how to respond.” Berenzweig adds that KidSafe is meant “to empower children that they have the right to be safe, to have a voice and say ‘NO’ if something does not feel right or they are uncomfortable (even from an adult).”
These books, along with the classes Berenzweig and Benjoseph teach in southern Florida, aim to communicate essential concepts about safety and to help parents continue teaching their children. “Talking with your children at a young age about their bodies is a natural part of your parenting,” said Berenzweig. “As early as 4 years of age, start discussing safe touches and unsafe touches and that they should come and report to you if anyone gives them an unsafe touch.
“There are other people out there, like predators, who are ready, willing, and very happy to teach your children about these things that you might be too scared to talk to your children about. You should be scared not to talk to your children about them.”
These conversations are particularly important given the prevalence of abuse and the myth of “stranger danger.” Berenzweig shares some terrifying statistics: “The research shows that one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually exploited by the age of 18, 90 percent of the time by someone they know, and 68 percent of the time by a family member.”
Berenzweig compares fire safety training to sexual abuse prevention training. “Every month our children have to practice fire safety. They get up, they role play if a real fire were to happen. There are very few fires that happen in schools. But every 10 seconds, a report of child abuse is made.”
KidSafe Foundation intends to make a dent in that number. About 25,000 children in southern Florida and thousands of adults have benefitted from their training.
Berenzweig and Benjoseph are planning to extend their reach. “We are in the process of publishing our curriculum to make it national—and international,” Berenzweig said. “We are working towards making prevention education mandated in all elementary schools. We would like to see a KidSafe chapter in every state.”
Because of her outstanding community work, Berenzweig was presented with a local Jefferson Award at a ceremony hosted by Palm Beach County’s NBC News on April 16. Given to national and local recipients, the awards honor outstanding volunteers with the goal of inspiring greater public and community service across America.
If the many testimonials on KidSafe’s website are any indication, Berenzweig deserves the recognition. Parents gush with gratitude for KidSafe’s training: “Because of what I learned in the workshop, guidance, advice and insight, I was able to take the correct actions … You personally helped to save my beautiful child from what could have gone on longer and gotten worse.”
This positive feedback, along with her knowledge of the negative effects of abuse, motivates Berenzweig to continue in her prevention work. “When I am teaching children, I constantly think about the patients I worked with who had suffered years of physical and sexual abuse and how hard it was for them to cope with life. When I look at the children, I feel a desperate need to prevent them from suffering the same turmoil in their lives … I wonder if [my patients] had had a program like KidSafe how their lives could have been changed; who would they be now? … No matter how tired I may get, or how hard a day is, seeing those women’s faces and the struggles they have been through keeps me going.”
For more information about KidSafe Foundation, please visit www.kidsafefoundation.org.