By Rush L. Russell
The new report from Penn State, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, highlights two of the greatest challenges in our collective efforts to protect children from being sexually abused by adult predators.
The first challenge is that many of our major institutions and individuals are willing to take extraordinary steps to protect themselves and their reputations – ahead of protecting our children.
According to the report at Penn State, this included:
• A striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims.
• Ignorance of child abuse issues and facts.
• A football program that had opted out of university programs and training on reporting requirements.
One can easily make the case, that by protecting their own reputations, and that of a college football program, multiple officials at Penn State played a role in helping Mr. Sandusky abuse more victims. That should be a crime.
Second, this report reinforces the fact that the public’s (and media’s) attention is still focused on reporting and enforcement issues after the fact – after a child has been abused.
By continually talking about how to punish perpetrators, we encourage lawmakers to introduce even stronger penalties, in the hopes that stronger law enforcement will better protect the public. Unfortunately, no such evidence exists.
Not all perpetrators of child abuse are adult predators like Jerry Sandusky; in fact, more than one-third of all cases involve two adolescents. Research shows that first-time offenders, especially adolescents, are at very low risk to ever repeat the crime. The increasing emphasis on law enforcement to solve the problem can also drive reporting even further underground as family members are afraid to report someone they know because they know of the overwhelming consequences.
A more important question deserving of our attention is what we can do to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place.
That can be accomplished by educating adults throughout our communities about the true facts related to child sexual abuse, how to recognize the warning signs of “grooming,” and bringing together leaders to strengthen prevention of child sexual abuse.
In New Jersey, we are making that happen, working with the Enough Abuse Campaign and many state and community partners. We welcome your support and please contact us if you would like to get involved.
Rush L. Russell is the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey. The organization was incorporated in 1979 as the state chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America. It works in all 21 counties to eliminate child abuse and neglect in all of its forms for all of New Jersey’s children and can be found at www.preventchildabusenj.org or 800-CHILDREN.