Penn State scandal highlights that adults need to take responsibility

September 11, 2013

MILWAUKEE - The recent situation at Penn State reinforces what we already know. Statistics show 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday. Less than 10 percent of these children will ever tell anyone what happened to them. In the Penn State case, someone witnessed the abuse. Yet, apparently it was never reported to the police who could have investigated and taken action to prevent this from happening to other children. About 90 percent of the sexual abuse cases involve a person close to and known to a child. And usually, an adult knows that something is going on and he or she does nothing about it.

Children are not responsible for their own protection. Adults are responsible for protecting children. You, reader, are responsible for keeping children safe. You don't have to be able to prove the abuse is happening. If you suspect, you must report. It's as simple as that. It doesn't matter what profession you are in or what relationship you have to the child, if any. Every adult has this responsibility. You can report as a concerned citizen, as an adult who wants to be sure children are safe.

Keep in mind that:

  • Abuse can happen to any child, regardless of a family's wealth, education or status in the community.
  • We all have a role to play in the development of our children and that includes becoming involved in situations where a child's well being is or can be jeopardized.
  • Situations such as this could result in lifelong difficulties for a child, including a greater potential for mental health and medical issues, substance abuse, delinquency and criminal behavior. These cost our nation $104 billion annually to remediate when abuse and neglect is not prevented.

The Penn State situation highlights the extraordinary power people have to hide abuse. And when people hide it, it's difficult for a child to come forward and to talk about it. Adults in their lives must take responsibility to protect them. Understanding what keeps child victims of sexual abuse silent is easy. They fear that revealing the abuse will bring harm to them or those they love, they will lose affection and they may be punished. Child sexual abuse is a crime that thrives in a climate of silence, secrecy and shame.

Fear is what offenders count on as they groom their victims. When child victims do come forward, you must believe them and take action so that the abuse can stop and the child can begin to heal. Our message to kids is to continue to tell someone until you are believed and an adult takes action to protect you.

In Milwaukee when a report of child sexual abuse is made to the police or the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, there is a partnership in place to ensure the abuse ends, the child has a safe place to talk about what happened and the child and his or her family get all the services they need to start healing. The Child Protection Center of Children's Hospital is a child advocacy center that responds to allegations of abuse and is part of that partnership.

So, how can you prevent this from happening to a child you know and love? Keep your eyes open and ears tuned in to all of the adults spending time with kids in your community, and trust your instincts if something does not seem right. If you see a relationship between an adult and child taking a suspicious turn, open the lines of communication with the child and watch the relationship closely.

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin makes it a priority to work with children and families through primary prevention, early intervention and treatment. Awareness to Action is a statewide program supported by Child Abuse Prevention Fund at Children's Hospital and the Wisconsin Children's Trust Fund. Awareness to Action runs the Stewards of Children workshop which is offered throughout the state and helps adults understand what they can do to prevent child sexual abuse from happening.

Adults learn what they can do if they suspect abuse is occurring with a child they know. You can find a workshop close to you on the website.

Your call to action: Be vigilant. Don't sweep concerning behavior under the rug. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, make a report to your local child protective services organization. Attend a Stewards of Children education session and learn how to keep this from happening in the first place. We are all interested in raising healthy children. Please step up and do your part to keep them safe.

Jennifer Hammel, Director
Child Abuse Prevention Fund

Mark Lyday, Director 

Child Advocacy and Protection Services 

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin