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Spotlight: Julia Strehlow, Director of Education, Policy & Prevention

Helping children heal is only one part of the work we do at ChicagoCAC. Our Education, Prevention & Policy (EPP) team works to promote legislation that furthers our work and educates professional and parents/caregivers about how to protect the children in their care.

Read more from Julia Strehlow, our Director of Education, Prevention & Policy, about why this work is so important.

I’ve been at ChicagoCAC for almost 9 years now, doing what we call ‘primary prevention work’. Primary prevention is stopping abuse before it starts through legislation, trainings, and other methods, while secondary prevention is responding to a disclosure of abuse to stop it from happening further, and tertiary prevention is healing the long term harm caused by the abuse.

ChicagoCAC uses a socioecological model to drive how we do our work (see image below). Some work is done with the individual child, some needs to be done with their family and caregivers, and some needs to be done on a higher level. If you’re not also reaching the organization they spend time at, the neighborhood in the community they live, and then the public policy that guides that community, you’re not going to change anything. You’re going to have to work at multiple levels in order to see change in society. The EPP team works at these higher levels, macro instead of micro, to promote meaningful change for Chicago’s children.

The EPP team is small but powerful – I currently have one other person and a few interns in this team, and we’re hoping to be able to grow further if we can secure the funding.  In a given day, we’re doing anything from meeting with coalitions about specific bills to trying to get more prevention education work into Chicago public schools. I do a lot of prevention work with coalitions across the city, state and country, such as helping organizations develop policies about child sexual abuse prevention. In addition, I monitor and participate in legislation development around the issues that impact our work. Some of that is funding—advocating for legislation to secure more funding or maintain our current funding levels—or work that further protects children from sexual abuse or protects their rights during the process of investigation and disclosure.

I might also lead a training, like one of the ones in our monthly webinar series, or be developing content for an upcoming training. Our trainings focus on child sexual abuse prevention in many forms, from raising awareness of the risk factors, to how to respond if a child discloses to you, or behavior indicating abuse might be happening. We also help people create organizations and communities that reduce the risk of sexual abuse happening to children. At a given time, we can have up to 20 different organizational entities that we are helping with their training and policy work. These can be small agencies that want one training, or a large agency that wants 12 trainings a year.

As an example of our work, last year we received a grant from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council to continue work that we do in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago. This past fall, we did prevention education work in a couple of elementary schools in that neighborhood prior to the start of the pandemic, and received additional funding to continue the programming at a different school in December. We hope to continue that work in person at neighborhood schools in the fall. This is a win for the community, which has a disproportionate number of kids on our waiting list for mental health services and doesn’t have equitable access to resources.

Our lessons go over body safety, how to talk to a trusted adult, and reinforce the idea that your private parts are private. Prior to the pandemic, we were helping the school and teachers give lessons, but the pandemic has caused such a strain on school communities that we sort of shifted gears and offered to modify the lessons so we could give them ourselves. We do a multi-session presentation to students as young as pre-k through 5th grade, about half an hour long, doing anywhere between two to six sessions, so the information is reinforced.

Currently we’re holding these lessons over Google Meets, which is definitely strange—we’re used to being in the classroom where the students are more engaged and the lesson might not be as long, since we don’t need as much time to get their attention as we do during remote learning. The lessons start with introducing ourselves, a little bit of relationship building, maybe using icebreaking questions, and then directly saying ‘We’re going to talk about safety from sexual abuse today, how to make sure you’re in charge of your own body and what that looks like.’  We play a 2 minute video that has a song and visuals, then we read a story and we ask some simple questions to engage the students in conversation. If they bring up questions or things they want to talk about within the timeline parameters, we respond to those, and then we do a satisfaction evaluation at the end to assess how it went. For older kids that’s a Google survey, for younger ones it’s a thumbs up/down. Half the work is in English, half is in Spanish, because that school has a lot of Spanish–only classrooms, particularly in the younger grades.

If we have a disclosure, we also make the proper reports and make sure the student receives the support that they need.  So far this year we’ve had 2 disclosures during these trainings. When a disclosure happens, you don’t stop everything, but it does affect your concentration. You stop and say ‘Thank you so much for saying, I’m so sorry that happened, someone will follow up with you later. If this is making you upset, it’s okay to leave and we’ll get in touch with you later.’ You note their name, move on with the lesson, and then make the report afterward.

CACs are very well-positioned to do primary prevention work because of how much they know about the issue first-hand. We learn from what we see here in order to stop this from happening to more young people. We take what we know about abuse and grooming, the trends we see, so we can target our prevention education to those areas and those sectors to try and give people the opportunity to talk about it more, to ask questions, and to call things out when they need to stop.

Want to know more about Julia’s work? Sign up for our Advocacy Alerts. You’ll get a notification when we need you to help out, from calling your representative to filling out an online

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