Martha Comfort is one of the more unique entrepreneurs in southern Iowa. Her expertise is preventing sexual abuse, spreading her message in school districts like Seymour and Wayne.
Two years ago, when the State of Iowa cut off money that once provided services to children, Comfort found it necessary to start her own business.
“Boyd Sinclair was the first one who opened the door for me, which was really great,” Comfort said of Wayne Elementary School’s principal. “I worked for an agency, and after they were no longer able to receive grant money to offer child sexual abuse prevention, I went out on my own, forming an LLC company.
“That was the only way I could continue the work I once did in those counties. I was able to make great strides in Wayne County in particular.”
This drive to serve children began when Comfort served as a legal assistant for an attorney in Oskaloosa. Throughout her 16 years, she had watched sexual abuse cases pour through the court system. It affected her enough to take action.
“The rate of sexual abuse in those court cases—you think there’s nothing you can do about it. The cases I saw, it was all secretive. Then I saw how I could prevent this.”
Fortunately, this year, the Wayne County Child and Family Abuse Council was able to provide her with enough grant money to fund her work.
“When you’ve been successful, and this is just the beginning, it’s very hard to pull back and say sorry, there’s nothing we can offer,” Comfort said. “I was lucky to be able to do this.
“Unfortunately, this program in the schools is not state-mandated. Some states have laws requiring it, and Iowa doesn’t.”
Comfort is currently working at the state level with legislators to mandate a law to teach sexual abuse prevention, the same as schools are required to teach suicide prevention.
The danger of nicknames
“As far as funding goes, we know—and I think this is where Federal and State funding comes from—they want to put more dollars into primary prevention work. After any kind of child sexual abuse happens, we’re then talking about trauma, which obviously includes lifelong adversity.
“When I teach these curriculums to children, they don’t even know they’re learning child sexual abuse prevention. We know how each age group best receives information.”
The same principles apply for preschool through second grade—the primary lesson is to ask for help, and before that, to build relationships with trustworthy adults to turn to in moments of crisis.
“Old prevention programs were ‘say no, go and tell.’ First of all, a kid saying no to an adult and then getting away—a lot of kids being sexually abused don’t even know it’s abuse. And then to say, ‘go tell,’ that signifies tattling. Instead, we teach kids to ask for help—we all need to ask for help at times.
“The second principle we teach is, ‘What is a mixed-up and confused feeling?’ Ninety-three percent of the time, children are abused by somebody they or their family knows. When they’re being abused by a cousin, a parent, a neighbor—somebody familiar to them—that creates a mixed-up and confused feeling. They don’t understand why that person is hurting them or doing this.
“The third lesson we teach is really hard for some people to understand. I’m not teaching sex ed, but the third principle is knowing the names of all your body parts. Yes, we teach ‘penis’ and ‘vagina.’ Law enforcement will tell you how important that is. Because kids being sexually abused, a lot of times they’re disclosing [the abuse], but adults don’t understand what they’re saying—they’re using nicknames, so the abuse continues.
“If the moment something starts, there’s an unwanted touch, if they know somebody in their lives and ask for help—it could even be a teacher at school—there’s no question in the adult’s mind when a child says, ‘I was at Zachary’s house, and his brother put his hands down my pants and touched my penis,’ there’s no question what happened there, and law enforcement can intervene right away.
“It’s when they don’t know how to express it, or when they feel ashamed of this happening—we want them to know no matter what goes on in your life, your body is special, and nobody has the right to touch you. It’s never your fault.
“The fourth lesson, we talk about how babies deserved to be loved and cared for, and all the things you can do now that you’re growing up—in the sense of, ‘look at all the things you can do, as far as washing yourself in the bath and things like that’—we’re teaching empathy. In one in three cases, sexual abuse is juvenile upon juvenile, and we’re seeing a lot of kids with aggression. If we can teach kids to empathize, to look at someone else who’s sad, and recognize what sadness looks like, we’re trying to reduce aggression.
“The fifth principal we teach is consent. We teach little kids your body is yours—you’re the boss of your body. You get to decide if someone hugs you or not. If you don’t want to be hugged by Grandma, that’s okay. If you say no and someone still hugs you, you can ask for help. We teach there’s never a secret with touching. That’s a secret you never have to worry about keeping.”
By grades three through six, Comfort begins talking about healthy and unhealthy relationships, sexual harassment and self-esteem.
Comfort is not nor is she trying to be Dr. Ruth. That is a misconception of her work.
One problem—since Comfort’s curriculum is not mandated by the State of Iowa—is parents can opt their children out of these programs. While this could be considered a personal freedom, it also creates a backdoor that allows abusers to hide their actions.
A good curriculum is not just child focused.
“I have a parents’ meeting, answer all of their questions, and then it’s up to the parent whether they want their children to go through this program or not,” Comfort explained. “You never know if abuse is taking place in the home if parents are opting them out [for ulterior motives], or if they’re just feeling uncomfortable with children learning the names of their body parts.
“It’s not like I’m saying, ‘10 times, repeat the word penis to me.’ I say it’s like Sunday school with a sexual abuse prevention twist to it. A perpetrator will know this kid’s been educated—they do not want to abuse a kid who’s going to say anything.
“I look at it from the standpoint that if you can teach your kids their bodies are special, and you feel uncomfortable, you can come ask for help. It solidifies the relationship between parent [as protector] and child.
“If I’m teaching kids to ask for help, then I’d better have an adult curriculum that teaches parents how to help and ask questions.
“Anytime you use the word ‘sexual,’ people freak out. That’s what’s hard, the fact sexuality involves our feelings and reducing aggression. With kids, I’m not talking about sex. I’m teaching parents what normal development is from this age to this age. If a child is acting out in a certain way, it’s a sign. It might be sexual abuse, it might be anxiety about something else, such as problems at school.
“I tell parents, ‘When your kids are older, you don’t want them going to peers to have their questions answered.’ You want to answer those questions for your children. It’s a privilege in that parent role to be the one they come to ask for help.
“My feeling is, if you suspect abuse, report it, and let law enforcement take care of the rest. The big thing is we’re scared to talk about it. If we don’t talk about it, we’re not going to prevent anything.
“It happens everywhere. A community should not be ashamed. It is better off to face it and overcome that fear than to turn a blind eye.
“When it comes to sexual abuse, we shame the victims so much. For instance, let’s say a teenage girl is being molested by a teacher in a high school. People ask, ‘Why didn’t she tell? Why didn’t she ask for help?
“Well, there’s this thing called the grooming process.” Grooming is the technical term for how a pedophile prepares his or her victim. The first step is friendliness. The predator often moves on to groom the parents before making the first move. “By the time the kid gets caught up in it, they’re so embarrassed that they don’t want to say anything, and the abuse continues.”
Seymour and Wayne
“I have a special place in my heart for those two schools.”
Since beginning at Wayne and Seymour, Comfort has moved on to Moravia, Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont and Bloomfield.
“We have a mutual respect,” Comfort said of herself and Principal Sinclair. “He knows I’m forthcoming with all the curriculum, and I’ll answer anyone’s questions. It takes a while to trust.”
After several months of visiting with Sinclair, Wayne decided to offer the adult class first.
“It was well-received by parents and teachers,” Comfort said. “After two years, you start seeing the benefit. These kids remember what they’ve learned.”
The next year, she moved on to instructing elementary grades up to fifth, which is the same plan for next fall.
“We know not all kids are coming from a safe home environment,” Sinclair said. “Deidre Buttz introduced Comfort and me to each other. That’s where it started. Comfort has a true heart for the wellbeing of kids.”
“I’ve always said, Boyd was the trendsetter,” Comfort said. “He took a risk on me. Seymour’s Jamie Houser and Kimberley Stonehouse have also been wonderful. They’ve even—when I come to Wayne County to work—have given me a place to office for the day. If they need some extra help in a classroom, I go in and help.
“In fact, I decided that to help them out, I’m going this weekend to train to be a substitute teacher.
“I love coming to Corydon and Wayne County. I drive an hour and 20 minutes to get here, and I get more excited as I get closer. It’s just a wonderful community. I love these small towns—it makes me think of where my grandmother lived in Pennsylvania.”
“She’s an amazing individual who’s done a lot for our students and our staff,” Houser said. “She’s helped get licensed therapists in our building.”
Though she now lives in Oskaloosa, Comfort grew up near Buffalo, New York and Niagara Falls, in Jamestown, the birthplace of Lucille Ball. Her family members are long-suffering Buffalo Bills’ fans.
The curriculum Comfort now teaches was started just across the border from her home in Canada in the 1980s, the result of a widespread abuse case in Ontario.
“Maybe I should’ve been a teacher,” Comfort said. “My mom was, my grandfather was, and my oldest son is. It’s my greatest joy.”