It was about a year ago, November 4, 2011, that criminal charges were filed against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty in July of 45 charges of sexual assault against 10 underage boys on or near university property. The scandal that followed over the past year has opened the door to a community conversation about child sexual abuse. Less clear is what our next steps should be to protect children.
The Freeh report released in July boiled the whole affair down to a simple declarative sentence: “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect children.”
The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County asks: What have we in Sedgwick County learned from the child sexual abuse scandal that rocked Penn State? What do we do to prevent similar occurrences here?
There is no getting around the fact that in Sedgwick County, we have a serious problem regarding child sexual abuse. The local statistics are sobering.
From January 1 through September 30, 2012, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit investigated 958 reports to law enforcement of suspected abuse. Forty-Seven (47) percent of these cases were sexual abuse related. Many of these cases involved the possibility of multiple victims.
In a three month period, from July 1 through September 30, 2012, 457 Sedgwick County children were forensically interviewed as part of these investigations and either received or offered services related to these abuse concerns. Of those interviewed, forty-three (43) were interviewed regarding physical abuse, ten (10) were witnesses to violence, and thirty –five (35) were interviewed regarding neglect or endangerment. However, 369 children were interviewed to determine if they were victims in the sexual abuse investigations.
Those statistics should frighten and outrage all of us, because, sadly, they only hint at the real situation. As is the case in every other community in the U.S., an estimated 85 percent of all child abuse goes unreported.
Let’s also be clear about who the abusers are. Of those 457 children, most identified a parent as the offender, followed by (in order): other people known to the child or family; a step parent; an unknown person; other relatives; and a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend. When a child is sexually abused, the abuser is almost always in the home or well known to the child. These offenders, most of the time, are not monsters. They are people we work with, live near, worship with – people we know.
Penn State officials’ failure to act was callous and self-centered, but it also revealed the hesitation many of us might feel about responding when we suspect child abuse. It is troubling to believe that someone we know personally could sexually abuse a child, especially their own child. We forget, however, that abusers count on other adults failing to act on their suspicions.
Page 2 of 3 - When someone suspects child abuse, adults may hesitate and ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” This kind of thinking can stop that person from making a report that may be warranted. Instead we should ask ourselves, “What if I’m right?” Children count on a community of caring adults to help keep them safe.
It is also important to point out that law enforcement officers and Department for Children and Families (DCF) social workers who investigate these cases through the Wichita/Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit (EMCU) have specialized training and years of experience in talking to children and potential suspects to determine the facts of any report of suspected child abuse. They valiantly work the front lines every day to protect children from harm. They deserve our support, and our help.
To suspect that child abuse is occurring, but do nothing to stop it is something we can’t afford NOT to act on. In the long run, the real impact of the Sandusky case will be measured locally by how we choose to respond to this heartbreak. Child abuse is preventable, and there is a role for all of us. Take time today to find out what you can do in your community to make the world safer for all of our children.
Kansas’ mandatory reporting law requires professionals whose jobs put them in frequent contact with children to report to law enforcement and DCF any suspicions of physical, mental or emotional abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse. But all adults have a moral obligation to report suspected child abuse. Period. That’s the mandate we need to follow. That’s the lesson I hope Penn State taught all of us.
Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, offers these 7 steps to protecting children from sexual abuse:
Step 1: Learn the facts. Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthdays. National statistics indicate that 30 to 40 percent of victims are abused by family members, often by older or larger siblings.
Step 2: Minimize opportunity. Think carefully about the safety of any situations where one adult and one child are alone together. Choose group situations when possible. Understand that abusers often become friendly with potential victims and their families, enjoying family activities, earning trust, and gaining time alone with children.
Step 3: Talk about it. Understand why children are afraid to tell. Abusers may shame the child, make them believe that they let it happen, or tell them that their parents will be angry. Some children are afraid their disclosure may disappoint their parents or disrupt the family.
Step 4: Stay alert. Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes or swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical problems associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur. Emotional or behavioral signals are more common. These can run from "too perfect" behavior, to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion. Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can also be a red flag.
Page 3 of 3 - Step 5: Make a plan. If a child breaks an arm or runs a high fever, you know to stay calm and where to seek help because you've mentally prepared yourself. Reacting to child sexual abuse is the same. Your reactions have a powerful influence on a vulnerable child. If your child reports sexual abuse, let them know you believe them and let them know they did the right thing by telling you. Remind them how brave they were to tell you the truth. Get them into therapy and support them through their treatment. Remember, very few reported incidents are false.
Step 6: Act on suspicions. You may be faced with a situation where you suspect abuse but don't have any proof. Suspicions are scary, but trust your instincts. Have the courage to report the suspected abuse. If you're unsure about whether to make an official report or just need support, contact a children's advocacy center staff to help you evaluate your suspicions and your next steps. The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County can be reached from 8-5, Monday through Friday, at 337-6593. To make a report, call the Kansas Protection Report Center at 1-800-922-5330 or 911 for immediate assistance.
Step 7: Get involved. Donate your time and resources to support prevention programs, children’s advocacy centers, crisis information and referral services, and rape crisis centers. Use your voice and your vote to make your community a safer place for children.
To learn more about child sexual abuse prevention, visit the Darkness to Light website at http://www.d2l.org
- Diana Schunn, Executive Director, Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County (CACSC)