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Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse

March 27, 2012 04:42:00 am
Comments (12)

By Mai Fernandez

Since the shocking indictment last fall of Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse,a series of similar cases has emerged throughout the nation. Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine, California elementary school teacher Mark Berndt and Louis, “Skip” ReVille, a former camp counselor at the Citadel in South Carolina were all accused of similar crimes.

After years of headlines about child sex abuse by clergymen, these cases raised yet another alarm about the failure of institutions to protect children from predators.

What do these cases tell us, and how should we respond?

First, these cases show that sex offenders seldom fit the popular stereotype of a creepy stranger. In fact, 75 to 93 percent of child predators know their victims, according to research by the Crimes Against Children Resource Center. Sexual predators are often relatives (fathers, stepfathers or uncles), neighbors, or family friends.

They may also be teachers, coaches, scout leaders, clergy members, camp counselors, or other adults whose jobs involve contact with youth. Predators are often highly respected leaders who—like Jerry Sandusky—are known for their service to their communities.    

Second, we have seen how institutions often choose to protect their reputations (and funding) at the expense of vulnerable children. At Penn State, several high-level officials were charged with perjury, suspended, or dismissed for allegedly covering up the incidents or failing to report the crimes to law enforcement.

In the other schools, others must have known—or suspected—what was going on. Yet they remained silent, condemning children to years of continued abuse.

So how can we prevent these tragedies?

Above all, we must demand a profound cultural change in all our institutions. Schools and other child-serving institutions can conduct background screening for prospective employees. They can teach every staff member, volunteer and student to recognize the signs of abuse and what to do if they suspect a child is being harmed.

Institutions can establish whistler-blower policies, actively encourage reporting, and respond immediately to allegations of abuse. They must assume that children who report abuse are telling the truth—so that victims feel respected and supported.

And they should report these allegations to authorities.

Institutional leaders should seek out and implement tested strategies for preventing abuse. They can adapt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best practices for preventing sexual abuse in child-serving organizations. These well-researched policies and procedures  cover screening and selecting employees and volunteers, guidelines on interactions, monitoring behavior, ensuring safe environments, responding to inappropriate behavior, and training about child sexual abuse prevention.

The guidebook includes organizational processes and planning tools for developing and implementing child sexual abuse prevention policies. 

Institutions can also learn and implement promising approaches such as the Situational Prevention Model (SPM) that Portland State University is now adapting for child sexual abuse prevention and is testing at several Boys and Girls Clubs pilot sites.

SPM is based on a framework for identifying risks in six key areas: (1) lifestyle and routine activities of organizational participants;(2) the larger community environment; (3) organizational policies, community regulations and subcultural influences; (4) characteristics of at-risk youth in the organizations; (5) high-risk locations within the organization; and (6) facilitators—or factors that can increase other risks, such as poor staff-to-youth ratios.

This approach, rather than focusing solely on predators, aims to mobilize organizations to prevent abuse.

But none of these changes can happen without leadership. Leaders must seize this historic moment—and capitalize on the attention generated by these cases—to root out and prevent child abuse.

They must establish cultures where not protecting children is unthinkable.

For too long, institutional leaders have sought to avoid embarrassment by refusing to confront child predators. But the best way to protect their reputations —and the children they serve—is to revolutionize their responses to child sexual abuse.

Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.  She welcomes comments from readers. 

« Article List

Posted by Dan Murray
Tuesday, April 17, 2012 05:56

While criminal background checks only identify men and women with criminal histories of sexual offenses one-tenth of one percent of the time, The Diana Screen® identifies an estimated 70% of the men and women who should not be placed into positions of trust with children because they present a sexual risk: either because they have already sexually abused a child or they have a very weak understanding of the strict sexual boundaries required between adults and children.


Posted by Mike Hungerford
Thursday, April 05, 2012 11:30

I think that it is extremely important that we all recognize that over 90% of all kinds of sex offenders (rapists, child molesters, etc.) are FIRST time offenders when arrested. Of course, this may reflect only that it is the first time they have been caught/reported, but it does mean that after-the-fact reporting/registration requirements will NEVER be an effective prevention tool.

Posted by Paula Sellars, MSW
Thursday, March 29, 2012 12:18

Thank you so much Mai! Powerful article that encapsulates the opportunity that is here with increased public awareness. I invite you to check out Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children program. It’s a documentary-style training, a “Docutraining” comprised of survivors, experts and others that call responsible adults forward in protecting children in youth serving organizations and in homes and communities. In fact, Alyssa Rheingold of National Crime Victim’s Research and Treatment Center (NCVC) at the Medical University of South Carolina, did a longitudinal study of the Stewards training and found behavioral change and a positive contagion effect in youth serving settings and communities. Great from a public health perspective! Thanks for your coverage of the solutions that are out there! www.darkness2light.org Paula Sellars

Posted by JLM
Thursday, March 29, 2012 10:18

Valarie Parkhurst- I am a retired educator, who also worked in law enforcement. There are some good reasons why some people are against the current sex offender laws.
1. State laws are not uniform. In some states you are considered an offender, while in other states, you are not. In some states you are on the registry for life, no matter what.

2. In some states, the laws are overly broad, to include teen sex, which really does not protect the public. How is having young people who eventally go on to marry, on the registry protecting children? It only makes criminals out of normal human responces, and does nothing to protect children.

3. For this, we are spending millions and wasting valuable resources.

4. In our state, if you abuse your own child you are not required to be placed on a public registry. Yet, if you were seen urinating in an alley, you are. How does this protect your child?

5. The ex-governor of California had a sexual relationship with a underage girl, and yet did you ever hear about it?

6.Yes, I am a mother. Our son is on the registry. Years ago he was pursued by a young women who lied about her age. She was 16, and not 19. They did not have sex.

When he discovered that she had lied, he refused her calls. And she retaliated.

 For that, he spent three years of his life in prison, three years of being strapped on an ankle braclet. He can not find a job, or a place to live.
He now has a young son who he can not support. He has a young son who is harrassed. He is not alone.

Thousands of children are being abused by the sex offender public shaming. Our family has been destroyed.
Punish those that brake the law, and protect our children. However, the punishment should fit the crime! We need to focus on those that abuse children, and not on those who got themselves into a one time situation.

We need to educate parents, not use scare tactics and create useless laws. We need to educate our children, especially our teens. We need to make them aware of the “age of consent laws” and how some seemingly innocent occurance can affect or ruin their lives forever.

Posted by Valerie Parkhurst
Thursday, March 29, 2012 05:23

I notice some of the RSOL members jumped on this forum. RSOL for those interested are groups of sex offenders and or their advocates who seek to abolish the registry and change the tide of opinions wanting to re-enforce to the public that all sex offenders are just guys who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and dont deserve the oversight they must adhere too. Kinda like a shell game, their motto is “dont look at us, look at your brother-in law”. RSOL members dont care if you got caught with your underage girlfriend for consentual sex or tore the insides out of a 4 year old, all are welcome at RSOL. All will defend each other with the common denominator that shares Sex Offender status! Its obvious that society is NOT doing all that should be done in this arena, if we did we wouldnt have the daily bombardment of abuse stories by more and more “repeat offenders”. This crime is committed for no other reasons than compulsion and the desire to use a warm body to “get off”. We arent building rocket ships here and any “bugs” that find themselves on a registry in this day and age knowing what the full repercussions are ,is a bug I want kept under glass. Some Offenders like Jerry Sandusky left a footprint of abuse along the way, but no one wanted to be the first to step up to the plate and follow thru with it. RSOL members will use Sandusky as an excuse against the Registry while people like myself know the registry is made up of thousands of Sandusky’s who were eventually exposed. The Registry doesnt save anyone, society will have to figure that one out on its own. The Registry is a tool for information and for the public to utilize that tool is priceless when determining who to allow in your children’s airspace. Oncefallen.com is a sexual predator who likes to make alot of noise due to his failure to grasp his problems started the day he crossed the line of what is acceptable behavor in a society that deems his victim was too young to make a consentual decision, he maintains his 11 year old victim was “just asking for it”. If one reads the onslaught of post by offenders , its difficult to not be left wondering why they arent sitting in a cell rather than posting their “tales of Woe” on articles as this. In all my years of watching this topic my tolerance level has dropped to zero for poor excuses for DNA that use our children for nothing more than sexual vessels and or vents for worthless personal character flaws. Offenders love to use the “cost” of the registry as an argument. The Registry is worth its weight in Gold if persons utilize its information effectively. I have long maintained that adults spend more time interacting with their children on how to pass their driving test versus what will land them on a sex offender registry. Children must be taught personal boundaries and how to respect them. To revolve offenders back out onto the public is criminal in itself. Tier levels are nothing more than a “racket” for state funded voodoo doctors who get paid per head to watch an offenders head spin. The system itself doesnt want to pay to house, feed , oversee or bury these people and the daily headlines of heinous crimes indicate that clearly.

Posted by Mai Fernandez
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 04:16

We appreciate everyone’s thoughtful comments and concerns about how institutions should transform their approach to child sex abuse. It is true that because the majority of predators have not come to the
attention of law enforcement, precautions based on identifying known sex abusers inevitably fall short. That doesn’t mean they are useless. Our main point, though, is that institutions must stop looking the other way
when child abuse is suspected—and must do everything in their power to prevent and address child sexual abuse.

Posted by GHT
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 09:36

Mr. Wooldridge can’t possibly by a law enforcement professional because he would have not generalized the word “pedophile” since most sex crimes against people who can’t consent are completed by hebophiles.

We are actually spending way too much money and time on the registry. None of the aforementioned people were registered sex offenders. The four hundred million dollars we spend on that tool each year is completely wasted and the money could be freed up for preventative measures. There is a study called “Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law,” Jeffrey C. Sandler, Naomi J. Freeman, Kelly M. Socia, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law (2008), 14, 284-302 The study basically says the Wetterling, Megan’s and AWA laws are a waste.

The wicked witch of the east is dead; we don’t need to keep watching out for her. We need to watch for other dangers along the path.

Posted by Rhonda Hickey
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 08:49

Very informative and shame on us if we fail to take action!

Posted by howard wooldridge
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 03:31

Speaking as a retired detective who arrested his share of pedophiles, ‘Good Touch/Bad Touch’ was crucial to a number of my cases being reported.

#2 – my profession spends entirely too much time chasing marijuana dealers – because we make money (civil asset forfeiture) – & thus we miss thousands of pedophiles. We need to get out of the helicopters and into the chat rooms. Our young people deserve our best, most important effort.

Posted by RG Williams
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 02:49

It is sad that so many children have been subjected to this kind of abuse. Unfortunately, we are so focused on “Registered Sex Offenders” that we miss the mark when it comes to where the real danger lies. I have long since argued that the registry is nothing more than political hype created out of fear and ideology that is not fact based. This gives parents a false sense of security, overworks an already overloaded system, and punishes minor offenders in the same way it punishes predators. I don’t care if a man got drunk and ran naked around the neighborhood. I do care if the local soccer coach is molesting children. Something is very wrong with our perception of sex offenders and the ill-conceived laws that invade every aspect of their lives, and their families lives, regardless of the offense. Meanwhile, the really dangerous people live among us and we don’t even see it, in part due to a lack of education regarding the difference between registered sex offenders and sexual predators.

Posted by Gerald Elkins
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 02:11

Interesting story. We just had closure in a five-year-old case here where a 6-6, 37-year-old man kidnapped, raped and murdered a 9-year-old girl, dumping her body in a small, rural cave. The perpetrator was found guilty of capital murder and his jury recommended the death penalty. I agree that even more stringent controls need to be establis’hed. Not so sure that setting up more rules in schools, etc. will do the trick. It hasn’t seemed to work so far. Whats that old saying? “It takes a village to raise a chid.” Boy, that is sure true today. Family, family, family. that’s the key, I think. Thanks

Posted by oncefallendotcom
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 01:04

promoting the public sex offender registry and a back ground check is only exacerbating the problem. Would a background check have filtered out Sandusky?

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