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What have we learned in the wake of the Penn State scandal?

November 30, 2011

Recently there has been much discussion about the disturbing events involving a former Penn State football coach and allegations of sexual abuse of several children.  Serious questions have been raised in this case regarding the role and responsibility of adults who have direct knowledge or suspicions of child abuse to report their concerns to the proper authorities. Sadly, media reports reveal that the failure of adults to report suspected abuse is not isolated to this one university, sports team or organization.

At the Orange County Children’s Advocacy Center, a part of the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, we provide services to children who have been abused and neglected.  The literature tells us that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they are 18.  Those are alarming statistics, and parents naturally want to know how to best protect their children from this type of harm.

Educate yourself

One of the first things parents can do is to educate themselves about this topic.  While it is popular to teach children about “stranger danger” and to avoid talking to adults they do not know, the concern about this type of training is that it focuses on only one area of risk for children.

The truth is that over 90% of abusers are someone the child knows, trusts or loves.  Furthermore, over 80% of child sexual abuse occurs in situations involving one child and one adult (or older child), so minimizing situations in which your child is alone with a single adult or older child is another way in which to reduce their risk of harm from this form of abuse.  There are other excellent tips and guidelines on the Darkness to Light website for parents or others interested in more information on how to protect their children.

Listen to your child

There are many lists of the various indicators of this type of abuse. Many children offer vague complaints such as stomach aches, eating disorders, self-injurious behaviors or withdrawn behavior. Others may show more obvious signs: a fear of being alone with certain adults, regressive behaviors, excessive showering or bathing, pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases in young children. However, one of the single most important indicators we see in this field is a statement by a child that someone has touched them inappropriately. 

It is extremely important that you listen to and believe your child if they tell you that they fear being alone with a particular adult, or that someone has touched or harmed them.  If a child believes that he or she will be punished, disbelieved or blamed for revealing abuse, they are not going to confide in you.   Sometimes a child will disclose partial information to gauge your response, or they may tell you that someone they know experienced the abuse instead of themselves.  Abuse perpetrators often tell children the abuse is their fault (and children believe them) or that their parents will be mad at them if they reveal what occurred. Additionally, the offender may also threaten or bribe a child into silence.

If your child does disclose any form of inappropriate touching or contact by an adult, an older child or a physically larger child, it is very important that you take this information seriously and that you let your child know you support and believe them, no matter how upset you may be.  Studies show that having an adult caretaker who supports and believes a child who has been abused greatly enhances that child’s ability to recover and heal from the abuse.

Report your concerns

It is also very important that you report these concerns to the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1.800.96.ABUSE and/or to law enforcement so that further assessment by professionals can occur.  It is known that most sexual offenders have more than one victim, and reporting your concerns can help prevent other children from being victimized.

Seek help

The Orange County Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) provides assessment, advocacy and therapy services for abused and neglected children in a child-friendly facility.  Within the CAC, the Child Protection Team is comprised of medical staff and social workers who conduct medical examinations and forensic (fact finding) interviews to help assess cases of suspected abuse and neglect. We have Child Advocates who assist families with locating resources such as counseling, food and housing.  The licensed therapists at The Healing Tree provide therapy for children who have been abused to help them transition from being victims of abuse to survivors.  Therapy is also provided to adult caretakers of children who have suffered abuse.

Our message at the Orange County CAC is that there is healing from abuse, and we are here to help.