As individuals and communities, we are all impacted by the horrible allegations of child sexual abuse by a former assistant football coach at Penn Sate. These reports leave us wondering how such atrocities could happen when so many well-minded adults were around –– yet none took the necessary action steps to end the abuse and the offender’s access to children. Further, parents are left wondering how they can best protect their children.
Shock, disbelief and outrage are often the first reactions to such news. However, this incident can serve as a teachable moment to empower adults to recognize the signs, have the courage to react responsibly and, ultimately, prevent child sexual abuse before it happens in the first place.
The accused did not wear a trench coat and lure a child into a dark alley. Rather, he was a talented man who was revered by the public as a coach and trusted mentor. He allegedly used that trust to obtain access to children. Tragically, this scenario plays out all around us every day. Hundreds of thousands of children are sexually violated by adults every year, and shockingly, more than 90% of the time, the child is abused by someone the family knows and trusts.
At Darkness to Light, we have spent the last decade educating adults — those who are in a position to protect children — how to prevent abuse and recognize warning signs so communities can react responsibly and with confidence.
Penn State could have benefited from having its staff trained so that witnesses would come forward. Having policies and procedures in place, and staff empowered to hold others accountable to the policies, would have made all the difference in the lives of the children involved and the reputation of the institution.
There are more than 42 million adults in America who were sexually abused as children. Research shows that between eight to 20 percent of our children are abused every year. The immediate impact to a child is devastating and the long-term impact costs society more than $35 billion annually. Child sexual abuse is linked to personal dysfunction, mental health issues, teen pregnancy, violent crime, substance abuse, and sex trafficking – among other issues.
Now is the time to finally shine a spotlight on the much avoided subject of child sexual abuse. We must talk to our kids and our communities about prevention. Public dialogue about child sexual abuse helps shape better societal beliefs and responsible actions. The more we can talk openly about child sexual abuse signs or perpetrator patterns, the better we are able to recognize behavioral red flags and have the courage to take action.
We should expect our youth-serving organizations to have policies that govern how adults may interact with youth. Further, these organizations must offer regular trainings, so that no one is left wondering what their legal or moral obligation is when discovering that a child has been sexually abused. The youth-serving organizations should hold staff and volunteers accountable, while our communities, parents and students, in turn, should hold the organizations accountable.
We encourage the public to continue the dialogue that has been started and find hope in the fact that there are things we all can do to reduce the risks in our own homes and organizations. Get involved in your local school, church, youth service organization, youth camp or sports league to ensure that prevention is being addressed and comprehensive policies and training are in place to identify potential problems.
If you believe that your child has been victimized in any way please get immediate help through your local child advocacy center. In addition, Darkness to Light is here as a resource to any parent or organization who wants to get involved in making their community a safer place for children.