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.