Why media -- and we -- don't grasp scope of abuse

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Why is this so difficult to understand?

As I write this, retired Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has not been convicted of child molestation – yet. Personally, I believe he is guilty. There appears to be abundant evidence in the case to convict him.

What is astounding to me is that the general public seems to find this so unbelievable, as in: It is so horrible; how could this happen? Yes, it is horrible, but, please do not believe that it is unusual or rare. Child sexual abuse is common. Statistically, one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused by age 18 in the United States.

The media is so predictable – and I must say unethically theatrical – when it comes to a case such as Sandusky’s. I watched three cable news channels, and laughed out loud at the men and women who were feigning disgust and outrage in one breath and moving on to another story about ice cream or banning big sodas in the next breath.

ONE NEWSWOMAN actually stated that the testimony given Wednesday was too horrible to be repeated. Really? With all of the filth and gore and murder out there, testimony about someone being sexually abused as a child is too horrible to be repeated? Is that part of the reason why our society cannot reduce or stop child sexual abuse? Why can’t we talk about this?

And why are some newspapers publishing this story within the sports pages? It is not a sports story.

One cable newsman stated
that graduate assistant coach Mike McCreary is the man who brought Penn State to its knees and prematurely ended the career of legendary head coach Joe Paterno.

Don’t blame Penn State or Joe Paterno. Almost all of us are failing to protect children.

The real story is about children, and the fact is that we are not protecting them. We are not protecting children very well at all. When Darkness to Light: Stewards for Children, a leading child abuse prevention organization, reported last year that there are 39 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse, I was stunned. Thirty-nine million! The Penn State “story” is captivating, yet it is not at all significant in the entire picture of child abuse.

IT IS MORE common for child abuse and child sexual abuse to not be reported. Children are threatened by perpetrators of abuse to not tell anyone. It takes tremendous courage on the part of child victims to make disclosures about their abuse. Adults owe it to children to be courageous, too. Pay attention, listen, observe, ask questions and be ready to believe what you hear or see.

The “scandals” of authorities going to great efforts to cover up child abuse and child sexual abuse within their organizations are common. Protecting alleged perpetrators – often predators who torture children – is common. We see this every week in our work at Child Enrichment Inc.

The fears that people experience about reporting suspected child sexual abuse must be addressed.

Whatever you think that keeps you from calling law enforcement, if you know or suspect that a child is being mistreated, is mostly
cowardice. If you fail to report, you are helping to protect perpetrators of abuse, and enabling more child victims to be abused and tortured.

Sex offenders, some of whom have dozens of victims, are mostly very careful and clever about finding opportunities to have access to children, and all parents should be very concerned if any adult – friend, family member, teacher, coach, clergy, or other – seeks to spend significant amounts of time alone with your child.

DO YOU SUSPECT that a child is being abused, severely neglected or put at serious risk? If the answer is yes, you must make the call to the law enforcement office in the area that the abuse is happening.

Besides reporting suspected abuse and neglect, anyone can help abused children by supporting your local Child Advocacy Center, and Court Appointed Special Advocates. In Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties, you know us as Child Enrichment, and for our work to help child victims recover from abuse, trauma and torture. We work with law enforcement and the district attorney on many cases of child abuse or child sexual abuse. Last year, 695 child abuse victims received the specialized services of Child Enrichment. With help, child victims recover.

Child Enrichment is a 501(c)(3), nonprofit charity, and we need donations. We need volunteers, too. You can become a CASA and work with abused children until a safe, permanent home can be found. You also can attend a Darkness to Light child abuse prevention program. View a January 2012 video on www.ChildEnrichment.org. Support fund-raisers such as Cookin’ for Kids each year in March, and Art of Chocolate on Oct. 12.

I beg you to summon the courage to report any suspected child maltreatment, and by doing so, you may help save the emotional or physical life of a child today. Your help is needed, and you are capable.

(The writer is executive director of Child Enrichment Inc., the Child Advocacy Center and Court Appointed Special Advocates.)

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NCCPR 06/17/12 - 10:56 am
Phony numbers and hype harm children

If Dan Hillman, executive director of Child Enrichment, Inc., the world is made up of four kinds of people.

--“Predators who torture children.”
--Journalists who are “unethical” because they don’t report on those predators at precisely the length and in precisely the manner Hillman deems appropriate.
-- “Cowards” who fail to report their slightest suspicion of anyone and everyone for just about anything and everything (a category that includes almost everyone who isn’t a predator or an unethical journalist) and finally –
--That tiny category of noble, selfless, enlightened beings – like Dan Hillman – who struggle mightily to educate the unethical, cowardly masses.

The problem of child abuse is serious and real, but the solutions have been phony. I don’t doubt Hillman sincerely wants to protect vulnerable children. But his self-aggrandizing, self-indulgent column pushes phony “solutions” that hurt the very children he wants to help.

For starters, Hillman is guilty of statistics abuse. The claim that “one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused by age 18” is based on one study which used a definition of “abuse” so broad that it includes a 19-year-old boy kissing a 17-year-old girl goodnight after a date. Details here: http://is.gd/YxiAZz The number of predators who rape or torture children is much lower.

Hillman also is largely wrong when he claims that “our society cannot reduce or stop child sexual abuse.” True, we can’t eradicate it. But, as the Associated Press reports, sexual abuse in America has declined dramatically in recent decades. Details here: http://is.gd/tGUoQd

Hillman says he knows protecting the predators and torturers is “common” because “We see this every week in our work at Child Enrichment Inc.” That’s like saying “Everybody gets cancer. I know because I’m an oncologist, and everyone I see has cancer.” Obviously, if your job is to run a place where every child brought in is suspected of being abused, it’s easy to get the impression that abuse and covering it up are common.

Hillman would no doubt reply: Why quibble about numbers? (That’s what people who use phony numbers usually do when they’re caught.) Even one case is too many. That’s true. But if Hillman really believes even one case is too many, he should feel no need hype phony numbers.

That hype is, itself, a serious danger to children. It encourages citizens to overload agencies like DFCS with false allegations and trivial cases, so no case gets the attention it deserves and more children in real danger are missed.

It also subjects the children to enormously-traumatic interrogations, often accompanied by stripsearches. The medical exam for sexual abuse is even more traumatic.

Sometimes children must be put through all this. But it should be based on more than a guess by someone afraid of being branded a coward for exercising more care. Otherwise we wind up with cases like the one in Florida, in which an assistant principal called in a report about “a possible sex crime” – two 12-year-olds kissing in the schoolyard. Or worse, we could return to the withchhunts over false allegations of mass molestation in day care centers that swept the country in the 1980s - of which the McMartin Preschool was only the most notorious.

The problems for the children worsen exponentially if investigators, afraid of the response by people like Hillman if they decide a parent is innocent, rush to tear apart the family and consign the children to the chaos of foster care. Two landmark studies of more than 15,000 typical cases – not the horror stories in which Hillman revels – found that children left in their own homes typically fared better in later life even than comparably-maltreated children left in foster care. Details here: http://bit.ly/9MXDP9

That’s because the typical case is nothing like the horrors conjured up by Hillman. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

In theory, after a child is taken, a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, a citizen volunteer, is supposed to conduct a neutral investigation. But CASAs are anything but neutral. The most comprehensive study ever conducted of CASA, commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that CASA actually worsens prolongs needless foster care – doing serious harm to many of the children it is meant to help. CASA also reinforces the racial and class biases of the child welfare system. According to the trade journal Youth Today, CASA’s efforts to spin the findings “can border on duplicity.” Details, and a link to the study, are on our website here: http://bit.ly/gfJdtV

But then, that should come as no surprise in Richmond County – where Dan Hillman, the same person who runs the center that “works with law enforcement and the district attorney on many cases of child abuse” and seems to think there’s a Jerry Sandusky lurking in every shower, also runs the CASA program.

People should report child abuse when they have reasonable cause to suspect it. But to turn in anyone and everyone for anything and everything, and to give in to post-Penn State paranoia does enormous harm to children. That is the real act of cowardice.

(Tomorrow, I intend to submit the above for the Chronicle’s consideration as a Guest Column. Should they decide not to publish it, it would mean that the editors and I respectfully disagree on what should appear as a Guest Column on this page. It does not, however, mean that the editors are unethical.)

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

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