As originally printed in the Trenton Times & NJ.com on June 8, 2012:
As the trial of accused child molester Jerry Sandusky begins, we can expect to see, once again, the public’s outrage about the whole tragic affair — how so many children could be victims, over such a long period of time, with no one doing anything. So far, most of the media’s coverage has focused on the question of reporting, i.e. who at Penn State saw something or knew something and should have done something to stop it.
But there has been almost no attention to the question of what it would have taken to have prevented these tragedies from happening in the first place. Child sexual abuse can be prevented.
A key is for parents to know three things:
1) The most likely perpetrator is someone they know and trust;
2) perpetrators take steps to gain the trust of children and their parents, which is called “grooming”; and
3) child sexual abuse happens when an adult has one-on-one access to a child, so parents need to be vigilant about those situations.
Parents need to understand that in 90 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse, the child and family know and trust the perpetrator. The biggest danger to a child isn’t a stranger in the park – it’s someone a parent trusts and even likes and respects — and someone who has access to the child in one-on-one situations.
Just understanding this can help parents be aware of the situations that pose the greatest risk to their children.
Who has one-on-one access to your child? If your child is spending time in a one-on-one situation with an adult, are you able to drop in unannounced? Do you? Is the setting one where a child could be offered alcohol, which is often used as part of grooming? When your child comes home, do you speak with him/her to ask how things went, and what happened that day?
Parents need to stay in touch with their kids’ activities and watch for warning signs that something unusual may have happened.
A relatively small percentage of perpetrators fall into the serial pedophile category, represented by the Sandusky case. More than one-third of all cases involve adolescents with younger adolescents.
So, it bears repeating: Parents need to be vigilant and aware. They must ask themselves if their young teen, son or daughter, is hanging out with much older teens. The “power differential” that happens with an older child and a younger one can be a risk factor for abuse.
Finally, a parent should note whether his or her child has received any gifts from these same individuals, possibly ones that may seem unusual. Perpetrators often provide gifts to victims as a way to gain their trust and affection, or to bribe them not to tell if something has happened. If a child has received such gifts, a parent may simply want to ask more questions. There are other warning signs related to abuse that include mood changes in the child, or signs that he or she has a new fear of spending time with a certain adult, that should be paid attention to.
In all of the cases at Penn State, these warning signs were being sounded loud and clear, yet parents and other adults weren’t listening or didn’t know what to watch for.
Still, today, the media are not asking about these issues or reporting about what it takes to prevent child sexual abuse from happening. Today, by knowing the facts, an adult or parent or caregiver can be more vigilant, ask questions and take steps to protect children. Everyone in our community has a role to play.
It’s not that any adult who cares about or who spends time with a child is a likely perpetrator. We don’t want to live in a society where fear and distrust replace noble human instincts and behavior.
Right now, however, we are not doing an adequate job of protecting our children from sexual abuse. Thousands of lives are devastated each year in New Jersey alone. A little more vigilance and education will go a long way toward preventing child sexual abuse — before it ever happens to a child.
In New Jersey, we have created the New Jersey Partnership to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, a statewide coalition of our state’s top experts. Our strategy focuses on educating adults about the above facts and much more about child sexual abuse that parents and all adults can use to protect children. We’ve chosen three communities to lead the effort, including Mercer County, led by PEI Kids in Lawrence. Eventually, we hope to reach every community in the state. The initiative is based on replicating a successful model, the Enough Abuse Campaign, a research-based model developed with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In New Jersey, we’ve had enough abuse — enough shame, enough guilt, enough harm, enough silence — and we are strongly committed to better protecting the most vulnerable members of our society from being preyed upon by adults who are supposed to be their caring protectors.