This week, many of us are cringing with horror and fear at the allegations of a cover-up of child sex abuse at Penn State. If there is one good thing that can come from this scandal, let it be the rekindling of a national discussion about the often-hidden problem of sexual abuse. Institutions like schools, churches, and youth organizations have a responsibility to keep children safe, but it has become sadly obvious that as parents and citizens, we all need to be aware of the dangers posed by sexual predators. Rather than being the protectors of our children, many institutions are instead “covering up” despicable acts of wrongdoers.
Here’s what you can do:
- Know the facts. Darkness to Light, an organization established to prevent child sex abuse, states “Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays”, and “most child victims never report the abuse”. See 7 Steps to Protecting Our Children from Sexual Abuse here.
- Know the profile of sex abusers. Research shows that abusers usually have the appearance of respectable, ordinary citizens, but they place themselves in situations where they can be trusted with access to victims. Be aware of any one-on-one situation your child may be in with another adult, and make sure those situations are observable.
- Know the signs of sexual abuse. These vary by age, but for children may include nightmares or sleep problems, new fears of certain people or places, or exhibition of adult-like sexual behaviors, language, and knowledge. While anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse, children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. It was just last year that The Oregonian started an investigation of sexual abuse at nursing homes.
- Know when to speak up. It seems like normal human instinct and logic would dictate that if you suspect child sexual abuse, a formal report needs to be made to an outside agency that can take action to protect the child. One of the most alarming parts of the ongoing sex abuse scandal at Penn State is the number of people that were evidently aware of it – and did not contact the police. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a variety of guidelines to help prevent child sexual abuse in organizations that serve children, stating “It is vital that youth-serving organizations create a culture where child sexual abuse is discussed, addressed, and prevented.”
In a press release issued this week, the National Center for Victims of Crime expressed "The arrest of a former Penn State athletic coach for allegedly abusing eight young men shows why–for every institution in our society–protecting young people must become a top priority." I couldn’t agree more.
National Child Sexual Abuse Helpline: 866-367-5444
Tom D’Amore is a member of the National Crime Victim’s Bar Association