Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser in the classroom.
Editor's Note: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
by Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser
I remember the moment I made the decision to take action. I don’t think I can ever really forget it. I was sitting at my dining room table. It was Friday night, and my family and I were having Sabbath dinner. That night, like many Friday nights, my “family” included seven teens who would be classified as “at risk,” or as my husband and I like to say, “in risk.” These were kids from different backgrounds doing all sorts of drugs and alcohol and other risky behaviors.
My husband founded “Our Place,” a drop-in center for teens at risk, and they often come to us for Sabbath and holidays because they are disconnected from their families. They were all from religious homes and had gone off that path in different ways. The one thing they all had in common was they were in emotional pain. You could see it in their eyes - it was palpable. One after the other, they would begin talking about their experiences growing up. And one after the other, they would reveal harrowing ordeals about being sexually abused, verbally abused, emotionally abused, and neglected. It was difficult to listen to, and even more so to imagine experiencing, and then one kid spoke up, saying, “If only someone would have told me it was okay to tell, maybe things would be different.”
Those words echoed in my head and my heart, and soon Magenu was born. Magenu is the name of the organization I founded. The term refers to a protective shield, magen, in Hebrew, the goal being: let’s bring education as protection to as many kids as we possibly can. At the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work, where I am studying for my MSW, one thing is always crystal clear: our role is to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves, to never lose our empathy, and to always strive to keep on learning.
I have poured over sexual abuse prevention programs that exist and read the research that is out there on what works and what doesn’t. I have taken all of this information and - with the help of other mental health professionals, educators and parents - created a curriculum for an entire school system to implement. Studies show that after a mother, a teacher is the next individual a child will disclose abuse to. That is a huge responsibility and has the potential for saving so many.
I believe strongly in the power of education as a means for prevention. I have gone into so many classrooms to teach this topic, and I always imagine there is at least one child in that room who is being abused or neglected or having some trouble being understood. I am speaking directly to that child; I just don’t know which one it is...yet. I believe with prevention will come disclosures, and then, eventually, the numbers will be lowered. If I can prevent even one child from ending up at my table for Friday night dinner because they feel they have nowhere else to go, I will have accomplished what I have set out to do.
Dr. Shani Zoldan-Verschleiser has a doctorate in audiology and is currently finishing her master's in social work at the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work in New York City. She is the founder of Magenu, an organization dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse.