Preventing the Sanduskys in our midst
Dallas Morning News Op-Ed
One of the most overlooked issues in the Penn State sexual abuse saga is the apparent perception that Jerry Sandusky is somehow the "exception" — an otherwise upstanding pillar of the community who developed an unusual sexual predilection for young boys. The reality is that perpetrators who sexually victimize children are hiding in plain sight. And how many Texans know that each of us is required by law to report suspected child abuse?
The prevalence of child sexual predators is astounding. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, 5 percent, or nearly 1 million Texas adults, are pedophiles — and that doesn't include adolescent offenders or "cross-over" rapists of adults who assault children as well. Sex offenders do a masterful job of cloaking themselves in guises such as community leaders, benevolent pastors, prestigious politicians and, in the Sandusky case, heroic coaches. These predators convince family members, friends and the outside world that they are beyond reproach by using the camouflage of their respected positions.
Perpetrators "groom" their victims by building trust and breaking down the child's defenses, all too often succeeding in keeping them silent. Intimidating children with shame and threats of harm, predators convey subtle messages ensuring that few will believe the child. The result: Only 1 of 10 sexually abused children will actually tell someone about their assault. Since we can't expect voiceless children to speak out, it is incumbent upon adults to do so.
In most states, the legal obligation to report child abuse is limited to "mandatory reporters" (professionals such as teachers, health care professionals and law enforcement officers). Texas is one of 18 states to mandate that anyone who suspects child abuse must report to law enforcement or Child Protective Services. The remaining 32 should follow suit.
But what's the power of a law when few know of its existence? And how many Texans know how to fulfill their duty? If we are genuinely outraged by the Penn State scandal, then we must enlighten our fellow Texans — all of whom are "mandatory reporters" — of this grave responsibility.
Thankfully, Texas made a start by passing mandatory training legislation in 2011. Now, Texas child care workers, teachers and other new school staff members must be taught to recognize, report and prevent child abuse (training is provided free online). However, the bill stopped short of requiring existing school staff as well as university officials to be trained. This law must change.
Moreover, Texas should initiate a citizen awareness campaign akin to the successful "Dial 911 for emergency" education effort. We could emulate other states, such as Delaware and Nebraska, where multimedia campaigns are provided to instruct adults on how to protect defenseless children. Delaware's initiative included billboards and radio broadcasts (in English and Spanish) as well as online training modules — one for the public and another for medical professionals.
Furthermore, we must enforce existing statutes and impose tougher sanctions on those who wantonly disregard the law and hide child assaults. Exempting domestic violence victims (given that they are threatened victims themselves), Texas should upgrade the penalty from a mere misdemeanor by joining 20 other states whose punishment for failure to report is a felony.
Think about it: 1 in 20 adults — perhaps your kindly neighbor or a fellow church member — is a child molester. It is essential that the rest of us know how to recognize, report as well as pre-empt child molesters from perpetrating these horrific crimes. It is imperative that we learn the lessons of Penn State by taking action now to protect our children from the thousands of Jerry Sanduskys right in our midst.
Madeline McClure is the founding executive director of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher J. DuHaime is a New York freelance writer and proofreader. His email address is email@example.com.
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