From Outrage to Action

Commentary on the Penn State-Sandusky Case


November 16, 2011

As one of the nation’s leading advocates for the prevention of child sexual abuse, we at Stop It Now! know very well that too often trusted community institutions fail to keep our children safe. This is one of the most challenging aspects of the tragic and disturbing Jerry Sandusky Penn State child sexual abuse allegations now dominating the news.

This story is a call to action to all adults to step up to keeping children safe from sexual harm. It is not about one individual, one system that failed to protect, or one college scandal.

As parents, as members of the community, as leaders of organizations, we need to ask ourselves what we can do to prevent the next Penn State. Because, unfortunately, it will happen again, unless something fundamental changes. Each of us needs to step up to the plate before more children are harmed by child sexual abuse.

Stop It Now! provides many of the most essential resources for child sexual prevention. Stop It Now! operates the only telephone and email help line dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse.

  • We hear from callers who are worried about someone’s behavior and don’t know what to do.
  • We hear from people who have reported their concerns to authorities but no case is opened or it falls to the wayside because there is a lack of evidence.
  • We hear from adults whose friends call them paranoid because they won’t let anyone tickle their child.
  • We hear from people who were worried about someone’s behavior but didn’t speak up because they didn’t want to offend anyone or they thought the person was too nice, too married, or too upstanding to also sexually abuse children. And then they found they were wrong.

How can we turn the Jerry Sandusky Penn State allegations into a tipping point where we can look back and say, “Things have changed. Adults know what to do and do it, even when it is uncomfortable?” To get there requires each of us to recognize there is so much more we have to do to put the safety of children first.

We need to open our eyes to the reality of who sexually abuses children. Research shows that adults know that children are most likely to be abused by someone they know and often love and admire. We also know that most child sexual abuse is never reported to authorities. So, just because someone seems really nice, has a good job, and is not on a sex offender registryi doesn’t mean they are safe with your children. What really matters is how they behave around children.

In our research with adults, we know that none of us thinks we’re the person who does nothing when we are worried that someone we know has sexually abused a child. And yet, too many of us, when faced with that situation in our own lives, are paralyzed and don’t know what to say or do, especially when we don’t have “proof” that someone has already harmed a child. Do you know whom to call with your concerns? Have you thought through what words you’ll say to protect a child’s boundaries? How would you handle a situation where a respected leader is behaving suspiciously?

We can’t rely exclusively on the “system” to protect our children. Penn State teaches us that we’re not off the hook if we make a report and nothing happens. We need to report every new concern. If we feel we’re not being heard, we need to call someone else with our concerns. We especially can’t rely on the “system" to prevent children from being sexually abused. We don’t have a “system” for prevention. We have systems for investigating reports but we don’t have systems that mobilize when we’re worried and get an icky feeling in our gut when seeing someone interact with a child. We have to be the system that protects kids.

So, where is the good news? At Stop It Now!, we’ve learned that when people have accurate and balanced information, practical resources, and access to support they do take action to keep children safe. Here’s what helpline callers say:

  • “Stop It Now! has helped me to not only find the information I needed, but has also helped me with how to use it – how to talk with my family and how to approach this in a positive way.’
  • “After talking to you I feel like I have some control over a situation that before felt completely out of control. This conversation has helped me make some decisions.” (anonymous comments, used with permission)

People who sexually abuse children are often very patient. Before they cross the line into full-scale sexual abuse, they test children by first putting their hand on their shoulder, then on a leg; showering them with gifts or flattering privileges and attention; or asking them to keep a seemingly innocuous secret. They let the child get away with something all the while testing how the child and the adults around them act.

How can we prevent another violation of our children on the scale of Penn State?

  • We can get comfortable speaking up about very small things that might not be signs that someone is thinking of sexually abusing children but that increases the risk or makes them more vulnerable.
    • We can decide ahead of time what is okay and not okay around children and we can proactively set boundaries.
    • Once boundaries are defined, it becomes more apparent when they are crossed.
    • We need to learn to speak up immediately when we see those boundaries ignored or violated.
  • We can create a plan of action so that when we’re confronted with a situation that worries us, we’ll know what to do. And we’re not talking about a stranger at the playground or someone trying to lure a child into their car.
    • We’re talking about that nice youth worker who seems to hug the girls a lot more than the boys.
    • Or the uncle with the roaming hands.
    • Or the neighbor with the latest video games who encourages kids to stop by after school.
    • Or the respected coach who takes kids on overnight trips to see professional football games.
  • We can ask questions of the institutions and organization that work with our kids.
    • We can learn in advance what their policies are and how they are implemented.
    • We can ask what training our schools, youth groups and faith communities offer to staff and volunteers.
    • We can speak up to those in leadership—whether it’s about the newest volunteer or the winningest coach.

This work is not easy. There can be risks – friendships lost, family support withdrawn, and even more. But as one of our supporters says: It’s better to offend an adult than fail a child.

Be that adult.” Be the adult who is there for children and young people. Be the adult who recognizes warning signs. Be the adult who’s a broken record when it comes to speaking out about concerning behaviors.