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Parents have the ultimate responsibility to protect children from sexual predators

November 14, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
There has been so much written about the Jerry Sandusky case in the past week, I'm not sure I can say anything new or different.

What I want to reiterate is that Sandusky's case should be a wake-up call. An editorial in today's Intelligencer states that no one anywhere can say now with conviction, "It can't happen here." If it happened in the revered and storied football program of Penn State University, it can happen anywhere.

And that's what makes this case so significant. In the Catholic abuse cases, people who weren't Catholic could at least pretend to rest easy, assuming their children would never be or hadn't been harmed. Some people could explain away the abuse, perhaps, by blaming (whether right or not) the celibacy clause of the priesthood for somehow "driving" them to sexual deviance.

Sexual abuse of children, however, often is not about sex. It's about power. But this guy seemed to have power ... lots of it. I can't figure out what would lead a person like Sandusky to commit these alleged crimes. For some reason I am driven to try and make sense of these senseless acts.

What could make a man like Sandusky, who was in line to lead the Nittany Lions after Joe Paterno's retirement; a man who led a successful outreach to troubled children; a man responsible for so successfully molding college recruits into highly effective linebackers that the university was once nicknamed Linebacker U.; a man respected and revered by coaches, politicians, businessmen and, yes, the boys whom he actually helped; a man who has been married for many years — what could lead a man like that to commit the long list of alleged atrocities of which he is accused?

I posed that very question to Leslie Vasillaros, director of the Harmony House Children's Advocacy Center in Wheeling and St. Clairsville, which provides counseling to sexual abuse victims and their families as well as conducts forensic interviews of children who have made abuse allegations.

While she couldn't speak specifically about Sandusky (who has not been tried or convicted), she said there are a couple of possibilities why someone with a great deal of power would victimize children. First, she said, it could indeed be a sexual issue not a control issue -- i.e., the person may be a pedophile, which is a mental diagnosis of having a sexual preference for children, and he acted on his urges. Pedophiles commonly victimize children of a certain type -- age or gender, for instance. Second, although a person appears to have a position of high esteem and power, he may not feel powerful, or he may crave more power, and victimizing children is the way he chooses to gain this higher level of power or control.

Even more important than determining why these crimes were committed — "We might never know the answer," Vassilaros said — is realizing that other adults who could have done something about the crimes chose to do nothing. The powers that be at Penn State and The Second Mile, the children's charity he founded, allegedly did nothing to protect the alleged victims from further abuse or to save others from becoming victims.

Vasillaros said her organization and others like it try to impress upon children the importance of speaking up about abuse, of breaking their silence. "How are we going to empower our children to break the silence," she said, "when we can't empower the adults to?"

One of the things that seriously frustrates — and even angers — me is when schools, safety programs and parents put more emphasis on teaching "stranger danger" than teaching children that it's OK to speak up if they have been harmed by someone they know. "Ninety percent of child victims know their abusers well," Vasillaros said. Because these abusers have the opportunity to spend time with their victims and win their trust, the No. 1 most important thing to teach children is what kind of touches are OK and what kind are not, and the No. 2 thing is to tell someone if "bad touches" occur.

Harmony House has a community education program that is free to anyone who requests it. Kate Monroe, prevention specialist, can present age-appropriate 15-20 minute programs about sexual abuse prevention to children anywhere in the Ohio Valley. Adult programs can range from 15-60 minutes. She also has a 30-minute program on cyber safety and sexting for sixth- through 12th-graders. Call 304-230-2205 for information.

Protecting our children from sexual predators should be as routine as teaching them not to take candy from strangers or how to cross a street. But some parents find the subject an uncomfortable one. Here are some practical steps to get you started:

1. Teach your children the proper names for sexual body parts so that they have the language they need to express what has happened to them. Be matter of fact about these names, teaching them as you teach them other body parts.

2. Teach the difference between safe and unsafe touches. Tell them that the parts their bathing suits cover are off limits to any adult. Also teach them about appropriate physical contact. Listen to a child who feels uncomfortable sitting on Uncle Joe's lap or kissing Mom's boyfriend-- there may be more to their objections than meets the eye.

3. Tell them it's OK to say NO! to someone who touches them inappropriately, and that you expect them to do so and then to tell you about it immediately. Even if it is someone they know and like, or whom they know YOU like, it's important that they tell. Even if the person threatens them or someone they love, it's important to tell.

4. Spread the word. Talk to your friends and family about steps everyone can take to prevent abuse. Call your child's school and recommend the Harmony House program or other similar programs offered locally.

And again, parents, if your child discloses abuse to you, YOU have a responsibility to tell! It is recommended that you do not confront the abuser but immediately call child protective services, law enforcement or the National Child Sexual Abuse Hotline, run by Childhelp, 1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453.

For more information, Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child sexual abuse, has a tool for parents called 7 Steps to Protecting Our Children. You can find them by clicking the link provided with this blog.

Don't wait for someone else to do the right thing or for some institutional "chain of command" to take care of it. If you won't be your child's advocate, who will?


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