It has been a little more than a year since the child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University first alarmed communities across the country. The unfolding of this issue served as a troubling reminder that child sexual abuse spans all geographic areas, races, and classes. It happens in our schools, our churches, and our homes.
The failings of the adults who knew of Sandusky's victims were many: unwillingness to believe such a "great guy" would do something so bad to children, assuming someone was "dealing with the problem," not contacting the authorities, and ultimately lacking courage to stand up for the children victimized by Sandusky.
The West Virginia state legislature took to heart the lessons of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. What we learned from that terrible crime is that victims were often not believed, witnesses were unwilling to speak up against a friend, and others who knew about the abuse assumed that someone else had made the report to the authorities. A new law in West Virginia requires any adult over age 18 who witnesses or receives disclosure about child sexual abuse to report it to the authorities. Now in addition to their own moral and ethical obligations all adults in the state have a legal mandate to report child sexual abuse. You may also make a report to the authorities even if you suspect child abuse but do not feel certain that it is happening.
The shocking reality is that statistics show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys you know will likely be the victims of sexual abuse by the age of 18. Don't let that statistic fly by you; think of boys and girls you know. In an average classroom of 20 kids with 8 girls and 12 boys, 4 children will be sexually abused. Child sexual abuse spans all geographic areas, races, and classes. It happens in your schools, your churches, and your homes. The chances that you will encounter or gain firsthand knowledge of a child being abused may be far greater than you would imagine. Now think of what you would do if you discovered any one of them was the victim of abuse.
It is easy to feel confident you would report the abuse, especially when envisioning someone like Jerry Sandusky as the alleged perpetrator, a man most readers of this paper don't actually know. But the reality is perpetrators are rarely unknown; children are almost always sexually abused by someone they know and trust. So now envision that child's perpetrator is your uncle, your best friend, the youth minister at your church. Is it as easy to feel confident you would report the abuse?
In our local Children's Advocacy Center, where children are able to talk about their victimization as a part of a team assessment of allegations of abuse, sometimes we find out that the child disclosed abuse to someone who had not reported the abuse to the authorities. Sometimes it was the child's mother, sometimes a professional in the community, sometimes the child's neighbor.
Why was it that these individuals didn't report the abuse? If the investigators ever had the opportunity to ask this question, the answer was either a) they didn't want to believe it was really happening or felt uncertain about their suspicion, b) they thought they could protect the child in other ways, or c) they thought someone else had reported the abuse.
The sad reality is that the failure on the part of these trusted adults to report the abuse often left the child (and other children) vulnerable to further abuse and less likely to tell anyone else. If the adult the child chose to tell didn't do anything, why would the child victim tell someone else?
The Penn State story has been portrayed as a story of failure - failure to take responsibility and failure to protect those most in need of protection. But it can also be a story of hope and courage - courage of the victims in coming forward and cooperating with this investigation, long past the point at which they must have given up hope of justice. Imagine having one's abuse observed and nothing happening to the offender, and then being asked years later to come forward again in hope of help - courageous.
The Randolph/Tucker Children's Advocacy Center is joining the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network in the One With Courage awareness campaign and call to action, which is currently running on television, radio, billboards, and in social media statewide.
Please join us to show the same kind of courage by leading the way in our own communities - by educating and informing ourselves, by reporting abuse when we suspect it, by advocating for better protection on a local, state and federal level, and most of all, by showing the courage to protect our children - all children - from abuse.
Then you will also be "one with courage."