An eerie man standing in a dark alley.
That creepy neighbor who always keeps to himself.
The odd woman who talks to herself when you're in line at the store.
Most of us only think of sexual predators as strangers who kidnap our children in the mall or on the street. While this nightmare is scary enough, the reality is actually far more uncomfortable: In most cases, sexual predators are known and trusted by children and parents.
Predators can come in all forms. They can be scout leaders, church figures, teachers or even relatives. Child molesters work very hard to gain the trust of other adults as well as the child. This is called grooming.
They often enter professions where they have status, trust of others, and easy access to children. They are frequently very charming and can deceive adults and children, alike into thinking that they are "great guys" with "hearts of gold.". While we cannot panic over this bit of bad news, we must also be aware of it and deal with it more effectively.
I was in Pittsburg when it was announced that Jerry Sandusky, defensive coordinator under Joe Paterno at Penn State, had been charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse. The whole world was shocked. He allegedly sexually abused 8 young boys, 8 - 14 years old, from 1994-2009. It is reported that more alleged victims have now come forward.
It appears that reports and rumors about Sandusky's inappropriate touching of children have been ignored over the years by Second Mile, Penn State, police, prosecutors, and public school personnel. During a police investigation in 1998, Sandusky admitted to inappropriate touching of children, but there was no known follow-up of this case.
The Second Mile is a non-profit organization to help "at risk boys" started and supported by Sandusky starting in 1999. This is where he met his victims and lavished them with gifts. The gifts may have been attempts to groom the children so they would accept his alleged sexual advances. He "groomed adults" into thinking that his "odd" behaviors with children were harmless.
In 2002, a graduate student reportedly found Sandusky sodomizing a 10 year old boy in shower at the Lasch Football building and informed Joe Paterno, Penn State coach, who alerted Tim Curley, Penn State athletic director. Curley alerted Gary Schultz, senior vice president for business and finance. It is reported that the police were not notified about the 2002 incident. This is in dispute.
Curley and Schultz have now resigned from the university, one is on administrative leave and the other has retired. Curley and Schultz have been arraigned and bail has been set at $75,000 each. Paterno's has been fired from Penn State.
In the wake of the Penn State disaster, many parents are now asking themselves: If a sexual predator can be a trusted friend, professional, or relative, how are we supposed to protect our children?
The first step is to take off our blinders. We can no longer afford to have rigid stereotypes of who can and cannot be a child molester. When we are unwilling to believe that a person of status, like Jerry Sandusky, or a teacher, or a priest, is capable of committing despicable acts, we are living with our eyes closed. When we see suspicious activity, of adults with children, we must confront it and report it when needed. If we see adults who spend the majority of their leisure time with children, rather than adults, we should investigate and report it.
Close and sincere relationships between children and adult caregivers afford kids opportunities to learn and grow. In fact, it's healthy for them to have interaction with many adults beyond just their parents. Parents and grandparents: Talk to your children and allow them to talk to you about everything. Let them know that you will help them with problems and that you love them very much.
However, it is also unbelievably important that we, as a society, guard our children from abuse. They are at the lowest end of the power scale and have no defense against an adult who has beguiled them for reprehensible purposes. As witnessed with Paterno, when adults don't report suspicious activity, they leave the kids at the mercy of predators. Their lack of action makes them almost equally as culpable.
Next, society needs to become educated about sexual abuse. People who were abused, neglected and exposed to violence and pornography as children, sometimes turn out OK and sometimes they don't. The children that do not get help and support to cope with childhood abuse often engage in acting out behaviors. The earlier the acting out starts, the more likely it is that, without help, support, and treatment, it can become a lifelong problem. Abuse must be stopped for children to recover from it.
As in NY and across the nation: "See something, say something."
Appropriate treatment, such as family therapy and developmental and multi-systems approaches are needed to help the victims of child abuse recover. It can also prevent toxic childhood environments from becoming the source of multiple types of problems for the victims in the future, such as substance abuse, risky behaviors, and PTSD. The key lies in making treatment universally available to all victims and investigating and treating youth with child abuse histories in the offender population, as well.
With financial cutbacks to all kinds of mental health and substance abuse programs, the availability of preventive treatment will become less and less of a reality in the United States. We cannot allow these support systems to disappear. We need to fight for these programs with both our wallets and our voices and understand that the next generation depends on us taking action now.
As we all watch in horror as the details of Sandusky continue to unravel, let's decide that we won't let the abuse of these innocent children go in vain. Let's take off our blinders, educate ourselves and others, and support the treatment systems that help victims and prevent people from developing more severe problems. Together, we can make a difference that will benefit generations of children to come.
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–Dr. Kathy Seifert