PROTECTING children from sexual predators is uppermost in the minds of every good parent and guardian.
Even with the public spotlight on child sexual abuse, and with a raft of new legal and reporting practices in place, can we be assured of our kids’ safety?
It was at a dinner party three years ago, that Catholic mother-of-four Michelle Derrig heard about two incidents of local children abused by fellow students at school.
“I was horrified to hear that in both cases, the parents had been supervising their children at the time,” Ms Derrig, a member of the St John Bosco parish, Engadine, in Sydney’s south, said.
“It made me realise, that no matter how diligent you are as a parent, the reality is that we need to empower our children to protect themselves.
“We need to teach them, educate them and develop the skills they need, in order to keep themselves safe.”
Ms Derrig put her thoughts into action, setting out on a two-and-a-half-year project to write a book to teach three to eight-year-olds the skills to keep themselves safe from sexual abuse.
It contains the critical information they need to know to protect themselves.
“During this time I also fell pregnant and gave birth to my fourth child, so family took first priority and I would just work on the book whenever I could,” Ms Derrig said.
Writing turned out to be a deeply spiritual experience.
“I feel that when you surrender your life to God, He will use you for his purpose, and that is very much the case with writing this book,” Ms Derrig said.
“The first draft I felt very spiritually inspired. I was praying prior to the first few words, and without even thinking about it I went from praying, and then within a few seconds picking up a pen and feeling this was something I had to get down on paper.”
During research, Ms Derrig consulted child protection experts and with Christian author and sex educator Dr Patricia Weerakoon so the book contained the best advice for dealing with sex abuse.
She talked to countless parents, including adult survivors of child abuse, and those who disclosed more stories of abuse even amongst preschool-aged children.
As she wrote, Ms Derrig road-tested each draft of the book with her own children, to make sure they could understand the complicated themes.
The book project reached new heigshts when Ms Derrig was introduced to Nicole Mackenzie, a former Disney animator, and herself a mother-of-three.
The pair met through their parish community.
The result is Only For Me – a 32-page, soft-cover rhyming book that is child-friendly and empowers kids with the knowledge that their body is private and that they have a right to protect their privacy.
“For me as a mother it was partly about preserving kids’ innocence while dealing with this stuff – talking to them in words they can understand,” Ms Derrig said.
“The use of rhyme as well has really enabled that. It very gently leads them into it.
“For instance they don’t need to be told what pornography is, they just need to know that it’s not okay for someone to see pictures or movies showing these parts of the body.”
Ms Derrig hopes the book teaches children to trust their instincts and respect their own bodies.
“It’s about disarming predators,” she said.
“If you can give children this sort of knowledge it will hopefully, at least, slow a lot of abuse down.”
To try and make the book affordable for most Australian families, Only For Me is self-published, and since its release last July, has sold about 1600 copies, with orders from every state in Australia, New Zealand, America and the United Kingdoom.
All of Ms Derrig’s author royalties are donated to child protection organisations, Bravehearts and Act For Kids.
She has just received a book order from a Florida-based advocacy group for inclusion in their United States educational program.
She has also received requests for publishing in the UK, as well as several requests to create a culturally sensitive Aboriginal version as well as a sequel for children who are known victims of sexual abuse.
Ms Derrig was heartened after sending a copy of Only For Me to Pope Francis to receive a reply of thanks from one of his advisors.
With endorsements from apostolic nuncio Archbishop Adolfo Yllana and Truth, Justice and Healing Council chief executive officer Francis Sullivan, she is now appealing directly to bishops to use Only For Me as an educational resource in dioceses across Australia.
“I hold out hope that with so much talk in the Royal Commission (into child sexual abuse) they are going to put in place measures to ensure these things can never happen again,” Ms Derrig said.
“My goal is to see it in as many homes and schools as possible and dream that one day it would be given to each kindergarten child as they begin their school journey.
“I welcome support from any organisation which can see the value of empowering and educating our children in this way and which may be able to help facilitate this goal.”
Only for Me costs $11.95 plus $4 postage and is available at www.onlyforme.com.au.