Please stop saying child abuse “prevention” when describing detection and reporting

To the Editor:

Pennsylvania has taken some important steps since the Sandusky tragedy came to light but many holes still exist in our safety net for children.

One of the largest is the fact that people are still using the word ‘prevention’ of child sexual abuse when they really mean detection and reporting.   By the time there is something to report and detect, it’s too late for real prevention.    We don’t say we prevented a case of influenza when we’ve recognized the symptoms and take someone to a doctor; we say we prevented influenza with a flu shot.   We don’t say we prevented a fire when we dispatch a truck to a burning home; we say we prevented a fire when we help ensure that every home has a working smoke detector. Using the term prevention when describing detection and reporting diminishes real prevention  efforts and reduces the likelihood they will be replicated.

The last decade has seen an impressive increase in the ability to bring real prevention to communities and families.  Real prevention is ensuring that communities and families have access to the resources they need to raise healthy, productive, and successful children.  Resources might be material, social or educational.  Such resources include ensuing that parents understand child development so they have realistic expectation of children’s capabilities at different ages.   Resources for ensuing sexual health and safety also include helping parents understand psychosexual development, and helping them develop  the comfort and knowledge to open the lines of communication with their children.  In the past year, I have seen organizations in State College take huge steps in towards this type of real prevention and they need continued support and encouragement to continue.

As we look back at lessons learned in the past year, none is more important than the fact that real prevention is possible.  Now is the time to systematically coordinate and support prevention efforts, not just in State College but throughout Pennsylvania.    Let’s ask our legislators to support legislation designed to prevent abuse before it ever  occurs.

This letter was unpublished at:

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig has been working with child sexual abuse for three decades. She currently is the national consultant for child sexual abuse prevention programs for Prevent Child Abuse America  and  is  the author of The Sex-Wise Parent (Skyhorse 2012) She is an alumnus of Penn State and has returned to that community multiple times  to support efforts at prevention.

The benefit of Paterno’s hindsight: lessons for parents!

If you’ve been paying attention to the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, you know that a report commissioned by Joe Paterno’s family calls into question several elements of the Louis Freeh report of last year that implicated Paterno in failing to do anything about Sandusky.  Paterno’s widow, Sue, went on Katie Couric’s television show Monday and  when Couric asked her reaction to Joe’s statement that “he wished he’d done more”  Sue Paterno quickly reminded Katie  that the full quote was, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d done more.”

Now we all have the benefit of hindsight and no matter which report we favor, there’s one thing that’s certainly true — children were abused by a predator who knew how to seduce them  then hide in plain sight.

If you’re a parent, grandparent or anyone else responsible for young children, the benefit of hindsight lies in the action you can take now to prevent such a tragedy from  happening to your family. First and foremost, you need to get comfortable talking with children about sex, and giving them the tools to talk about it, in their own way, with you.

What? you say, “Talk to a 6-year-old about sex!?”  Actually, you can, and with a little practice it’s easy.  Any child who understands that they can get goose bumps from being tickled is ready to comprehend that sexual arousal is an autonomic response to stimulus. “Sometimes, a penis just does what it feels like whether we mean it to or not”. Once a boy understands this, we remove one of a pedophile’s most important weapons; a skilled pedophile in the process of seducing a young boy goes to great lengths to ensure that the child experiences physical arousal.  Any boy who does not know that his body is wired to respond to stimuli whether he wants it to or not is vulnerable to the lies of a predator.   Pedophiles I interviewed for The Sex-Wise Parent confirmed that they use a boy’s autonomic response as a tool to gain compliance.  “How can it be bad when it feels good?” they ask, and the uninformed child has no answer.  Girls are certainly not immune; while their physical response is less obvious, unexplained autonomic arousal leaves teenage girls who mistake lust for love vulnerable to predatory adult men.

Hindsight teaches us that almost as important as developing communication skills is developing the ability to suspend disbelief. There are some dangers we can’t anticipate; institutions we find almost impossible to distrust. A priest raping a child? Impossible! Rape in our shower? Beyond incomprehensible! Putting our children in the hands of a pedophile at a charity dedicated to improving the lives of kids? Can’t happen!

But it did, and it can, and it will again in places we can’t imagine. So remember that your best defense is your child’s ability to say, “Mommy, when my (teacher, coach, babysitter) touched my pee pee and it got big (warm, hard, tickly), he said that was our special game, is that Ok?”

No parent ever wants to be in the awful position that left Joe Paterno saying “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d done more”   Do it now!

Find help for parents at

The Penn State endowment MUST create ‘real and permanent good’!

What’s the highest and best use of the fines being levied against Penn State?

Child serving agencies in the United States are in a tizzy anticipating the $60 million endowment from the Penn State fines. Public child welfare systems are notoriously underfunded in almost every state without a federal consent decree specifying how much the state must spend. Sadly, there is not a single state in this country with a child abuse prevention system serving every family and community who stands to benefit. There is sound reason for this anxious anticipation. But it must not drive the process.

Andrew Carnegie, a Pennsylvanian  widely credited as one of the fathers of American philanthropy spoke of philanthropy doing real and permanent good. Before Penn State obligates one dime, key stakeholders must engage in a rational strategic planning process and envision what ‘real and permanent good’ they might acheive.

The  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines strategic planning as a deliberate set of steps that:
•   assesses needs and resources;
•   defines a target audience and a set of goals and objectives;
•   plans and designs coordinated strategies with evidence of success;
•   logically connects these strategies to needs, assets, and desired outcomes; and
•   measures and evaluates the process and outcomes.

The second bullet point requires attention immediately. What basis will be used to determine how to distribute the resources among local and national organizations? Will the resources be split evenly among prevention, investigation, and treatment? Will resources be allocated for research into improving practices? Will a bona fide program evaluation be required for all grant recipients? What criteria will be used to determine if an agency has the administrative structure to administer the grant? What steps will be taken to ensure that these funds do not supplant an existing funding source?

I am not detached from this issue. I hold two degrees from Penn State. I am saddened beyond words at the allegations against Graham Spanier whose course I took as an undergraduate when he was a new professor in the College of Human Development. I have friends and colleagues living in State College, PA  who will feel the pain as the local economy bears the brunt of the sanctions. And, I have devoted my career, which began at Penn State, to working in the field of child sexual abuse. I now work with several agencies who could stand to benefit from these funds. This is up-close and personal for me.

Penn State officials must be unbiased, professional, strategic and well informed as they determine how they turn these funds into an endowment that reflects the best of our state. The questions I pose above, and others like them, must be carefully considered to generate answers reflecting the desire to create real and permanent good. Hungry advocates, posturing politicians and charities with great PR offering services lacking a theoretical basis should not be factors in their planning.

Let’s do this right, Penn State.

Lesson from day 2 of the Sandusky trial: One victim wept, the other deadly calm

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.

What parents must learn from the Penn State allegations of sexual abuse

I guess  it’s understandable that the big question right now seems to be what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.   As a Penn State alum, this makes me beyond sad.   As an undergraduate, I actually  had President Spanier as a professor in the College of Human Development, and my first masters degree is from what was then the College of Health and Physical Education.  Parterno was  among that faculty in my day, so this is personal to me.

I’ve devoted a large part of my career to the investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual abuse of children, much of it based on the foundation of the fine education I received from Penn State.  We cannot condemn the entire institution.  And solely focusing on Paterno – who I can’t help but thinking of as the Pope of Penn State –  will not save any children.   It’s truly  unthinkable to me that a 21st century professional could think a phone call to anyone other than police was a sufficient response to an alleged eye-witness report of a child’s rape in one of his facilities.  On the other hand,  the thought of someone raping a child in one of his facilities may have seem  so completely implausible that perhaps  he thought his minimal response was adequate.  Anyone who has ever had to face the crushing reality that a partner has been unfaithful for years or that a trusted employee has been embezzling money  knows that the human mind  only understands that which seems possible to us. Maybe, just maybe, this seemed so impossible to Paterno that he found his response sufficient.

So here’s one lesson for parents — Do not ever forget that the sexual abuse of children is a reality and the perpetrator really can be anyone.  Even someone who appears to be a fine upstanding person who cares for your child and maybe even your family. Even a favorite teacher.  A coach. The person you’re dating. The babysitter.

Here’s another lesson —  There is absolutely no choice but to knowas much as you can about  every adult spending time with your child.   There is no substitute for vigilance.  A convicted pedophile I interviewed for my book The Sex Wise Parent made it  quite clear that kids lacking vigilant parents or caretakers were much more attractive targets. Pedophile coaches notice which parents stay for practice or show up unannounced then really pay attention to what’s happening on the field.

Here’s a third — Pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and sometimes your family, and seduce your child by meeting his or her needs. This need could be emotional such as affection and attention from an adult male, or tangible as Todd Bridges described regarding his abuse by his publicist in his autobiography KillingWillis. By the time sex is introduced the child (or in some awful cases,  the family) may accept sex as the price to be paid for the positive points of the relationship. The allegations reported in the  Grand Jury report describe the seduction of vulnerable children with trips and gifts.

And the last lesson for now is this; families must provide children with information and language about sexuality.   I’ll provide detail on how parents can do this in future posts.  For now, concentrate on opening your mind to be able to think the unthinkable.  Maybe if Joe Pa had been able to do that a few kids might have been saved.