The most cunning predators choose a victim who can’t speak up. The drug dealer robs a junkie who can’t call the cops; the hooker robs the john who doesn’t want to be caught. These scenarios describe victims who put themselves in precarious positions; they took a risk and lost. The only risk a child victim of a pedophile took was to accept the friendship of an adult and they find themselves forced into a devastating silence that leaves scars as deep as the actual abuse.
The vastly different reaction of first two victims to testify the Sandusky trial show how individualized the effect of victimization can be. Fear, anger, and shame take their toll on developing psyches. The horrifyingly confusing double messages about right and wrong wreak havoc on a budding personality. Some victims bury their horror so deeply that internal walls come crumbling down when the secret is revealed; others act out in ways that we’ve come to recognize as cries for help.
The young men providing testimony are heroes. They should be hailed as trailblazers, lighting the way for other victims to come forward and helping everyone to see the predators hiding in plain sight. Lance Armstrong couldn’t have been thrilled at the thought of the entire world discussing his testicles; he moved millions to action with his frank disclosure of testicular cancer. We can and must show these brave young men taking the witness stand the same admiration we show for celebrities who shed light on deadly diseases, paving the way for predators to be caught and other victims to rid themselves of the undeserved shame.
Penn State announced today that they now require all employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities. Many advocates will express raging ambivalence that this is too little too late, and there is some truth to that. But consider the fact that Pennsylvania laws specify one of the most limited groups of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse of any state in the country. The only people required by Pennsylvania law to report suspected child abuse are people who “in the course of their employment, occupation, or practice of their profession”, come into contact with children; many states require anyone who knows or suspects abuse to contact authorities. Very few institutions anywhere adopt policies that go beyond the state requirements; Penn State is certainly to be commended for doing that.
As a prevention advocate I feel compelled to use this opportunity to emphasize my strongly held belief that we need to spent as much effort educating the public how to prevent child abuse as we spend educating the public on reporting child abuse. What might happen if everybody who comes into contact with children in the course of their occupation played a role in prevention? Physicians could follow the suggestion of the American Academy of Pediatricians and provide parents with anticipatory guidance so they know how to interpret and react to their child’s moods and behavior. Health teachers could provide accurate information about the human body so pedophiles couldn’t trap kids lacking understanding of autonomic arousal. Crossing guards might receive in-service training to help identify predators. The list could go on!
Penn State did a good thing by adding all of their employees to the narrow list of mandated reporters of child abuse in Pennsylvania. But can we please start looking at what else we all might do so that there are fewer cases to report?
Some people like to believe that abuse of children is a problem restricted to the poor, or disadvantaged. No so. The sex abuse allegations involving a prep school upscale enough to include the son of a governor are a stark reminder that people who prey on kids can be anywhere.
Predators come in all shapes, sizes, neighborhoods and income levels. They can ingratiate themselves into the lives of children and families as friends, coaches, clergy, baby sitters or teachers. The most important step a parent can take is to have open and honest age-appropriate conversations with their children throughout their childhood and adolescence. Natural discussions that include all parts of the body are a key. Conversational lessons about nice relationships — the kind where everyone considers each others feelings –can start with toddlers and continue as children develop a wider circle of acquaintances. And here’s the step that most people skip — ensure that your child’s school and the other institutions in your community have take steps to prevent sexual abuse and have a well thought out policy on how to respond if allegations are made.
The best news to come out of this story from the NJ prep school is that the administration appears to be behaving responsibly. The alleged perpetrator was brought back from another state to face the NJ investigation and press reports quote his superiors as saying he is being kept under tight restrictions.
The title of this blog post mirrors the title of the last chapter in my book, The Sex Wise Parent. There’s a lot to learn about being a prepared family and community, and you can find it in my book.