Presidents, Pastors, Principals and Superintendents – Wake Up!

Amidst all of the political shenanigans, world coming-to-an-end drama and heart-wrenching tragedy of the last few months, some may have missed that charges of perjury, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children were filed against former Penn State President Graham Spanier. This should make leaders of all child-serving organizations do more than just pause. This is a wake-up call to those in leadership positions that protecting children, as my dear colleague, Retired Lt. Bill Walsh likes to say “is not a spectator sport.”

Much will be written and much needs to be done to protect children from those who are mentally ill and strangers to our children. But here is another harsh reality. In our Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a nationally-recognized best practice model for effectively serving our community’s most severely abused children, last year we provided services for about 2,300 children harmed by those who were supposed to love or protect them. Most of these children were sexually abused, severely physically abused, or witnessed a violent crime.

More than 90% of the time, children are abused by someone they know and trust. I never imagined so many devastating reports of sexual violence against our young, but now these are “everyday” occurrences. I never imagined our most common client would be a 9-year-old little girl sexually abused by a known and trusted “father figure.” That is the reality we see week after week, month after month, year after year.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s report on the State of American Children, every 42 seconds a child is confirmed as abused or neglected. Every five hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect. These aren’t statistics from some third world country. These are from the land of the free and the home of the brave.

So, here is a New Year’s question to ponder. Who among us is fostering the right environment for the next “father figure” like Jerry Sandusky in our school, day care, place of worship, university, camp, or after-school program? Perhaps we’ve done all the right things on paper: we have written policies in place that are intended to protect children on our campuses, and we do background checks on our employees and volunteers. Isn’t that enough? No. That would be the absolute minimum. Most children never speak of sexual abuse; most abusers are never caught. Even those who are caught may not be prosecuted for myriad reasons. So we cannot believe our organizations are safe if we simply do a cursory background check and include a page in our policy manuals. We, all of us, as leaders, as concerned adults, must be engaged champions for protecting all children.

Despite what we see and hear every single day in our hallways, we are not pessimists. Those in our nonprofit agency are full of hope. We believe that each child has the capacity to heal from trauma. We know we can do better for our children, and we know that all leaders in child-serving agencies can play a huge role in sending a message that “enough is enough.” What can we all do to send that message?

Read and implement the recommendations from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures.

Require annual training on child protection that includes information on the grooming process that child predators use to lure our children. Part of our mission is to provide free training to thousands of professionals who work with children. We teach them how to Recognize and Report Child Abuse in face-to-face training sessions or online.

Reach out to your local Children’s Advocacy Center. If you don’t already have a relationship with your local advocacy center, reach out to someone this week. A listing of CACs can be found on theNational Children’s Alliance website.

Ensure that “practices” match up with policies and state law. Ask questions – lots of them. Uncover your unwritten practices. At a school recently, after our trainer spelled out the requirements of Texas state law in explicit terms, namely that those who suspect abuse have 48 hours to make the report to authorities, a leader of the school stood and said, “That may be state law, but you better come to me first before you take any action.” We’ve had the same experience in places of worship.

So, let’s be very clear about this. It is fine to have a policy that we want our employees or volunteers to let us know when they are making a report of suspected abuse, but it is not fine for us to have practices or policies that screen, deter or try to convince the person who has the suspicion not to make a report. It is not fine to do our own internal investigations before contacting the authorities. It is not fine to look the other way, hope the problem will disappear or never be spoken of again.

Mr. Spanier has yet to have his day in court, but we are patiently waiting for the outcome. Will the buck stop with him? What could he have done? What can we learn from his mistakes? While we can never provide 100% protection and eliminate all possibilities of harm to our children, there is much we can control. Let’s all pay attention, take a hard look at our policies and our unwritten practices, and train our teams. Let’s all make the world a little bit safer for our children in 2013.

Ellen Magnis is chief of external affairs at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman’s University.
This article was published in the Huffington Post.
Picture courtesy of Kids Place International

3 Responses to Presidents, Pastors, Principals and Superintendents – Wake Up!

  • bugmanwayne@yahoo.com says:

    Amen!!!!!
    There is way more that needs to be done about this problem that just talk about it. Education in an important key to understanding.g what ordinary people like myself can do in order to help put an end to child abbuse of any and all kinds. People with the right kind of knowledge could perhaps get to tether and make a small pamphlet showing all the different things to look for and then know what should do in order to help get it stopped. I for one, would be more than interested in reading.it and having legal guidelines to go by in order to begin destroying this problem for good, and place those guilty behind bars where they belong, and even worse if the deed ends with the death of an Innocent child. Just my opinion.. Thank you for taking.an.interest in this horrific problem.

  • Erika Rowell says:

    Hello Bugmanwayne@yahoo,
    I wanted to share with you a link to our guide for parents and individuals: http://www.d2l.org/site/c.4dICIJOkGcISE/b.6241197/k.F4F1/Child_Sexual_Abuse_Prevention_Tools_for_Parents_and_Individuals.htm
    Here you can learn tips on hiring caregivers, selecting a youth serving organization, tips on talking to your children, how to better protect your children in the digital age, signs of sexual abuse, handling disclosures and much more!
    In addition, I wanted to share with you a link to http://www.childwelfare.gov where you can find up to date information on state by state laws surrounding reporting child abuse and mandated reporting laws. Thank you for your dedication to child sexual abuse prevention!

  • Candy Bell says:

    I’ve wanted to turn my childhood sexual abuse into something meaningful and productive in the fight against it’s horrific continuence. The other night I had a rather inspirational dream that I formed a group of people known in their fields for their expertise in such vocations as: technical support, software developement, family law, criminal law, childhood developement, etc….And we formed an easy to use software for ALL agencies who work with children (churches, schools, little league, scouts, day cares, camps, etc….) to use to screen every single volunteer, paid worker, maintainance worker, contractor that that the various agencies use before ever so much as interviewing them for a position….One that pulls every single redlight determined by these professionals as statistical signs of someone who hurts children in ANY way. (after studying every aspect of known child abusers, murderers, etc…..) using the most common traits in these evil people. Maybe a full questionare would be required for any prospective employee or volunteer and the software would hit upon compatible traits of a child abuser. Not simplistic questions that are easy to answer in an appropriate manner to look plausible, but questions that would lean toward disguised answers determining the slightest traits, and a low ratio of pass or fail.
    Most of the schools in my district don’t even have a form of training for employees already on the payroll, let alone volunteers and contractors, to be able to spot and report childhood abuse. And none have training for children (age appropriate) to help them think on their feet, recognize signs of an abuser/stranger and their techniques for picking out and tricking children into their possession, what to do if pursued by a kidnapper, and how to find and report their abuse to someone who will take them serious and take steps to end ther abuse. Ofcourse, this is ONLY schools in my district whom I’ve contacted about these programs, NOT after school care, churches, sports activities, camps, etc………..parents, too, should be trained to learn of actions, or lack of actions and decisions that make their children more vulnerable to abuse. A self-absorbed parent making top of the list of parents whose children are targets for abduction/abuse, including single parents who indiscrimanently bring friends of the opposite sex into their childrens lives. Parents whom I’ve witnessed over and over again, picking up their children from school or activities while on their cell phone, talking or texting the entire time, while thier child/ren follow dutefully behind them, strapping themselves silently into their seats for the ride home or wherever, while their parent carries on ‘more important business’ on their multi-media devices. I see the saddened eyes staring blankly out of the vehicle windows as they pass by. I know.
    I try hard not to see the future of our children pessimisticly, to focus on the LIGHT you, as an organization, have shone on this horrendous crime against our most innocent, bringing it out of the darkness and forcing it, an uncomfortable topic at best, to be talked about, and solutions acted upon. For each adult of childhood sexual abuse and each child who comes out of the darkness the light gets a little brighter and our voices a little louder!
    God Bless Our Children

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