Last year, the documentary “Happy Valley” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. This award-winning film examines the abuse scandal at Penn State, the environment in which it happened, and the emotional aftermath felt by the community. Aside from offering a ground level view of the events and attitudes surrounding an event that shook the foundation of the Centre County community, the film offers a tremendous opportunity to talk openly about child sexual abuse.
On April 16, Darkness to Light (D2L) and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) held a special screening of “Happy Valley,” followed by a discussion panel including Dr. Regina Benjamin, 18th U.S. Surgeon General, Jay Paterno, son of the late Joe Paterno, and Howard Long, CEO of the Centre County YMCA.
Over 200 people gathered on the MUSC campus to view the film and learn about Centre County’s prevention efforts over the last four years.
Highlights from the event include:
Jay Paterno said that before this experience, the Centre County community was naïve to the reality of abuse. Now, he says he talks to kids about the proper roles of adults within their lives. He learned the signs, and he looks for them. As an advocate, he champions the role of child sexual abuse prevention within organizations that serve youth.
One of the most compelling stories of the night came from Howard Long of the Centre County YMCA. Following an early Stewards of Children training facilitated by the Y, seven teachers disclosed stories of sexual abuse as children. Howard says that experience provided a strong reminder of why training is necessary and says if he could tell all communities one thing, it would be get trained to prevent, recognize, and respond to child sexual abuse.
Before the Sandusky scandal, Centre County had no child advocacy center. Children who were abused were put through a gauntlet of interviews, required to share their trauma five separate times to five separate entities. Now there is an advocacy center that is trained to work with families and legal entities to ensure children are protected while justice is served.
“Happy Valley” portrays a community that was ill-prepared to handle the issue of child sexual abuse – one that through its naivety created an environment that allowed Jerry Sandusky’s actions to go unchecked. However, the film concentrates on the “football culture” of Penn State, nearly to the exclusion of the actual abuse.
Throughout the documentary, child sexual abuse is positioned as either a product of hero worship by an athletics-focused community, or something that is inevitable and unavoidable. In truth, it is neither.
While Jerry Sandusky certainly exploited the hero worship of the community, that story is hardly unique to the Penn State or athletics communities. One in 10 children are victims of child sexual abuse. It is everywhere, and serial perpetrators are skilled at finding the niche that allows them unrestricted access to children. This is why it’s vitally important to have the knowledge, tools, and empowerment to both prevent and respond to abuse.
Child sexual abuse can be prevented, it can be stopped, and it can be overcome. Following Sandusky’s 2012 conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, the Centre County community made a decision to learn from the past. County-wide, training initiatives are thriving and growing.
Unfortunately, the Jerry Sandusky story is not new – it is a story among thousands that play out on a much less public stage. In 90% of cases, child sexual abuse victims are victimized by someone they know and trust. This issue exists far beyond Penn State, Centre County, and certainly football. This is a universal issue. And the only way to truly make an impact is to follow the example of Centre County and place the focus where it really needs to be – on protecting kids and preventing history from repeating itself.