The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.
Jill Starishevsky has been an assistant district attorney in New York City since 1997, where she has prosecuted thousands of sex offenders and dedicated her career to seeking justice for victims of child abuse and sex crimes. Her mission to protect children, along with her penchant for poetry, inspired My Body Belongs to Me, which was released in May from Free Spirit Publishing. After originally self-publishing, Starishevsky decided to sell the book to Free Spirit to give it a larger reach. The second edition has brand new artwork and suggestions for parents and caregivers on discussing body safety with young children.
Q: Can you share a bit about your life’s work and how you wound up in your profession?
Jill: For the past 17 years, I have prosecuted child abuse and sex crimes in New York City. As the middle child and the only girl in my family, I was often mediating disputes between my brothers. The skills I acquired led me to become an attorney. Upon graduating law school, I knew I wanted to do something that would help people and I could think of no better way to help than to fight for justice for the victims of violent crime.
Q: What prompted you to write My Body Belongs to Me?
Jill: As a prosecutor, I have often encountered children who were sexually abused for lengthy periods of time and suffered in silence. One case in particular had a profound impact on me and compelled me to write this book.
I prosecuted the case of a 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather since she was 6. She told no one. One day, the girl saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show about children who were physically abused. The episode, “Tortured Children,” empowered the girl with this simple message: If you are being abused, tell your parents. If you can’t tell your parents, go to school and tell your teacher. The girl got the message and the very next day went to school and told her teacher. I prosecuted the case for the District Attorney’s office. The defendant was convicted and served a lengthy prison sentence.
I have thought often of that very sweet, very brave 9-year-old girl. It occurred to me that after three painful years, all it took to begin the end of her nightmare was a TV program encouraging her to “tell a teacher.”
I wrote My Body Belongs to Me to continue that message. It endeavors to teach children that they don’t have to endure abuse in silence. It wasn’t until I had children of my own and wanted to talk to them about this important subject that I realized there was nothing out there to guide parents in having this discussion. It is my hope that by educating girls and boys about this taboo subject, My Body Belongs to Me will prevent them from becoming victims in the first place.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
Jill: Without a doubt, the most rewarding part of writing My Body Belongs to Me has been the feedback and praise I have received from readers. From survivors of child sexual abuse to new parents who are grateful for the resource, I have been overwhelmed by the book’s impact. I wrote the book to address a subject many publishers were unwilling to take head-on. I had not considered the level of appreciation my work would receive from those who had waited for such a book for far too long. It is truly humbling.
Q: What advice do you have for parents who are leery about talking about body boundaries with their children or who think that they don’t need to?
Jill: I think it is incredibly important for parents to talk to their children about this subject. Many parents avoid the discussion because they fear it is uncomfortable or think this won’t happen to their child. But the statistics tell a very different and sad truth. In the United States, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused by the time they are 18. This conversation is not something that is intuitive to a child. If they do not learn from their parents, oftentimes the only person the child learns from is the perpetrator.
Furthermore, many children do not immediately tell someone if they are being abused. Unlike a child falling down on the playground, abused children are less likely to run and tell a parent what has happened to them due to fear, shame, embarrassment, not understanding that the behavior was wrong, being told no one will believe them, or believing it was their fault or that they have to keep it a secret. If parents talk to their children about being touched, the likelihood is greater that children will disclose abuse.
Q: How often do you recommend talking about body safety with young children?
Jill: It depends on the child. Parents should address the topic periodically as the child grows, and reinforce the message when it feels right, e.g., before sleepovers or the start of a new sports program. Parents can also take the opportunity to seize on “teachable moments.” If the topic is in the news, revisit what your children understand about body safety.
Q: Do you have any advice specific for educators about discussing body safety with young children?
Jill: Children can sense fear. Educators should embrace this subject and teach it fearlessly. Teach children the correct terms for their private parts so as to enable prompt disclosures. Make certain you understand what your responsibilities are as a mandated reporter and that you know how to effectuate a report.
Q: Finally, we always like to ask authors: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?
Jill: I am a Free Spirit in that I have an alter ego. The Poem Lady is my alter ego. The work I do as a prosecutor is so heavy and sad that I found I needed some sort of release. Ever since I was little, I had a talent for writing poems that rhyme. People would often ask me to write a poem for someone’s birthday or going-away party and I would do so happily. A few years ago, I created a website called The Poem Lady where I write customized poems for bar/bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremonies and baby and bridal showers. People send their information to me and I turn it into a cute rhyme. Being able to share in the joyous events of total strangers somehow balances out some of the sadness I deal with in my regular job. The best part is that people love the poems. I enjoy being able to help people express themselves when they are unable to find the right words.
Q: Are there any more books or projects in the future?
Jill: The next book I will be working on is a children’s book on Internet safety. Both parents and children are unaware of the dangers that lurk on the Internet, and I hope to provide a simple tool that can help keep children safe in cyberspace.
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