15 November 2011, 13:48

Sandusky’s case puts spotlight on students’ safety

Sandusky’s case puts spotlight on students’ safety
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Jerry Sandusky, Penn State's former defense coordinator, has been accused of sexually assaulting eight boys over 15 years. Two top university officials have also been involved. Sandusky has been charged with sexual abuse and covering up the abuse.

Jerry Sandusky, Penn State's former defense coordinator, has been accused of sexually assaulting eight boys over 15 years. Two top university officials have also been involved. Sandusky has been charged with sexual abuse and covering up the abuse. Cherie Benjoseph, LCSW Cofounder of KidSafe Foundation and a licensed clinical social worker in the field of Child Abuse Prevention for over 20 years, Paul Heroux, a public administration and policy consultant and a freelance columnist who's covered the story.

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Leslie Wilmot, Director of Child Welfare Training at American Humane Association, talk about the charges and the effect on the involved victims.

Talking about these child abuse cases in Penn State, give us an idea on a much broader scale about how often this happens in the US?

Overall in the US in the last report year – we take reports that indicate how much child abuse and neglect is happening in the country every year – the last report year was 2009, and they found that, of about 3 million children who were reported for child abuse and neglect broadly, about 760,000 were determined to actually have experienced that. Of those children a little under 10% were children who were sexually abused. So, that’s about 75,000 kids in about one year that we know about who were sexually abused by somebody. And 90% of those children were likely to have known who those people were, because they were people in positions of trust, in relationships with them.

Leslie, when we were talking about who the perpetrators of abuse are you said that most of the time it’s the people that the children know. How then can families protect themselves if it’s often someone, who they know, who they probably wouldn’t suspect, would be doing this abuse? How can they protect themselves if it’s not some scary boogieman that you don’t know?

I think that’s a very important question. I think that while we do want to make sure that our children are safe from strangers and while we know that it’s too heartbreaking to accept that, a lot of people we know – coaches, teachers, clergy, dear family friends, relatives we trust – are really those people who have most access and who actually perpetrate abuse against these really unfortunate, tragic young kids. It’s important for us to be open-minded and to realize and acknowledge that this is something you need to know about. It’s much easier to think about a stranger harming your child. And, while that is still a difficult thing to grapple with, it’s much, much more difficult to think about the person you’ve loved, someone in your family, who’s been your best friend being both willing and able to do this and having a way and an entry to being connected to your child. I think what’s really important for parents to do is to pay attention to how their child is being connected to especially adults around them. Most often they are looking for a loner or a lost child, somebody who doesn’t have a good sense of self, somebody who is not connected with other people very well. Maybe they don’t have a lot of friendship connections with their peers, maybe they are not doing very well in school or these are the kids who are not really performing or being engaged in other after-school activities or in sports. And these folks tend to be looking for opportunities to bring them into the fold. So they may be looking for positive reasons. That’s one of things I want to make sure people don’t forget. A lot of people are doing this for positive reasons. But unfortunately other people are looking for these opportunities for some really negative and serious reasons. So we want to pay attention to these folks. What is the real reason they are bringing them in? What kind of time are they spending with them? How much time is spent alone with them versus with the whole team, if they are on a team? How often do they invite them to do things such as travel independently, come to their homes, become a more of a mentoring relationship? The one that has a little more guided and rigid boundaries that keeps children a little safer.

When it does happen between a child and someone they trust, such as this Penn State abuse case, which went on for several years. From what we know, Sandusky used intimidation method to keep victims from telling anyone, in one case saying he would send a boy from camp if he mentioned the abuse. Why do we see kids and young people holding back from telling someone what’s going on?

There is a lot of different reasons. I think one of the biggest ones, especially with people you know, is that a lot of times they were in a position where you have a sense of trust about them, when you don’t know – especially younger children –don’t know that sexual abuse doesn’t it in our social expectations for them. For them it feels good, they feel comfortable, they are with somebody they care about, so it’s about trust in a relationship. For other kids, it’s exactly what you said. There is a fear “I’m going to be excluded, I’ve needed this person to be in a relationship with me because I’m not really connected to others so much”, or “If I say something, I won’t get to do an activity that is really important to me.” Sometimes it’s bigger than that even when they make a threat of harm to somebody else  the child cares about or even a child themselves – “If you tell on me, I’m going to beat up your mom”, or “I’ll make sure that I cause trouble to your family.” One of the other things to do is threaten the safety of a pet. Americans are very concerned about a certain link between child and animal abuse. That’s something we’ve heard and seen quite a bit as well.

How can you empower a child to feel comfortable speaking out when someone has touched them improperly or made improper advances towards them?

You have to develop a really warm and open relationship. Children, especially with parents and caregivers, need to know that they are going to believe them. Children don’t often make up a story like this. When this comes out – it’s often coming out under some kind of stress – they need to know you are a safe person for them to tell anything to. And spending time with them, checking in, asking questions, having the child know by stating to them over and over again “I am somebody that you can always come to.” And it should really be parents and caregivers that give this message more than anybody else. That’s not something that is used by perpetrators at an opportune moment either.

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