Two independent newspapers, The Indianapolis Star and USA Today, have published a major investigation related to USA Gymnastics regarding the failure of USA Gymnastics to report the suspicion of child sexual abuse by many different coaches over many years. Their failure to follow the law and report any suspicion of child abuse by coaches has resulted in the abuse of some victims over many years as well as girls who otherwise would not have been victimized at all. This very same pattern occurred with Penn State, and all too many Catholic dioceses and with leaders from other communities of faith across our nation.
What happened with the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State in 2011 dated back decades as well. Each institution was more interested in protecting their own reputation than reporting horrific crimes happening in clear view on their watch. And as the Indianapolis Star reports, USA Gymnastics had developed policies that made reporting of these crimes more difficult and allowed their leadership to largely ignore them when they came in.
How many times does this have to happen before we take stronger action? What needs to happen to stop it now?
First, facts about child sexual abuse confirm that sexual predators will often seek employment in a position that gives them access to children and youth. Second, the vast majority of adults working in these institutions are wonderful and dedicated individuals who choose to give back to their communities, sacrificing higher paying jobs because of their commitment to helping children learn, grow and prepare for successful adulthood. Third, nearly all of these stories, both about Penn State and now at USA Gymnastics, focus on the failure to report child abuse.
Reporting is critical and Vermont requires all those who work and care for children to report the suspicion of child abuse or neglect to the Vermont Department for Children and Families. Their central intake number is: 1-800-649-5285. Anyone can make a report and may choose to report anonymously.
However, little attention is being given in these media reports to preventing these cases before they occur. Studies show that once a child has suffered abuse, their life is changed forever. Although many victims remain strong and resilient, research shows that victims are more likely to suffer a long list of poor health and development outcomes, including alcohol and drug use, criminal involvement, mental health problems, chronic health issues, marital problems, physical health problems and even early morbidity, etc. Child maltreatment is clearly a root cause of a large swath of health and social problems affecting millions of Americans, costing us billions of dollars in lost humanity and productivity along the way.
Child sexual abuse is preventable. It can be stopped, before a child is victimized. What can work?
As one example, youth-serving organizations can develop stronger policies that prohibit specific “boundary-violating behaviors” that are part of the grooming process used by predators to identify a vulnerable child. This could include providing special gifts or rides to a child, inviting them to be alone with the adult (outside of the program), developing relationships via social media, or any touching that goes beyond acceptable guidelines for that program. If youth-organizations implement these policies with all staff, it sends a powerful signal to anyone with other intentions that this organization is wise to steps that predators use, and violations will quickly be reported along the way. It empowers other staff to come forward and let their leadership know, at an earlier point in time, if a fellow staff person is exhibiting creepy or unacceptable behavior that could be a problem. The organization can take action sooner to counsel their staff about what behavior is acceptable and let them know that any future problems could lead to a loss of employment. It may encourage those with problems to get professional help.
Prevent Child Abuse Vermont works with schools, and child care providers to train adults in how they can protect children from child sexual abuse. We work with teachers and administrators to strengthen children’s social and emotional knowledge and behavior to reduce the likelihood that they will be victimized or victimize others. If your school, childcare center, organization or club would like more information or training about preventing child sexual abuse, please call 1-800-CHILDREN or 802-229-5724 or go online to pcavt.org.
Together, we can lift the veil of secrecy and silence that allows child sexual abuse to occur.
Linda E. Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont