There is an extraordinary exhibit at the Vermont Historical Museum, one that I encourage you to visit. It will be there from now until July 30. It tells the disturbing story of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington and the children who were abused there.
When the documented torture and abuse of children was taking place at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington from the 1940s until it closed in 1974, most Vermonters were unaware of what was happening within those walls. Many, who may have had concerns or suspicions, likely felt uncomfortable questioning the Catholic Diocese, an authority that is not easily questioned.
It was not that long ago when adults did not fully embrace and understand the responsibility that we all share to protect children. The prevailing culture told us that no one charged with and dedicated to the care of orphaned children would ever harm them, and if children were being abused they would tell someone and be believed and protected. That was just not what was taking place.
In fact, even today, children speak up and are not believed. Even courts fail to protect them some of the time.
I am writing this today with the hope that every adult Vermonter will hear how vital a role we each have regarding the safety, well-being, and protection of children and teens.
Here is the most important lesson: children cannot protect themselves from those who are in a position of authority over them, whom they depend upon for their basic needs, who give them attention they desperately require, but with dangerous motives, and who threaten them, coerce or shame them.
Because there is often so much shame, the average age for telling is 52. Yes, 52!
We failed the survivors of abuse at St. Joseph’s Orphanage but we can do our best to care for and protect children in our families and communities now. The legacy of this horrific past can be one of hope for all our children as more adults learn how to prevent abuse, intervene in the grooming process, and report when we have suspicions.
If you are concerned about a child, call the Vermont Department for Children and Families Central Reporting Line, 800-649-5285. You can learn how to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring in the first place, learn how to interrupt the grooming process, and learn what to do if you suspect child abuse may be occurring. For information and resources please visit firstname.lastname@example.org or register for a training. Trainings are live, online, and free to all Vermonters.
Let’s honor the survivors of the St. Joseph’s Orphanage, many who gave testimony before the Vermont Legislature last year, by becoming more able to protect children and youth right now!
Everyone has a role.
Linda E. Johnson, executive director, Prevent Child Abuse Vermont