Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University football defensive coordinator and convicted child sex abuser, never considered his victims’ future, or how severely he was harming them, physically and emotionally. He used his position at the University, along with the charity group he founded to help underprivileged youth, to systematically and repeatedly sexually abuse boys.
Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team and Michigan State University athletic trainer, and convicted child sex abuser, didn’t care that the malicious and abhorrent acts he perpetrated tore apart families and changed the bright future of innocent girls. At his trial, 158 women and girls made statements about the abuse they suffered.
Sandusky and Nassar grab our attention. They were highly respected in their community. Their crimes were despicable. And in both cases, their superiors and the authorities were unwilling to take swift and significant action to stop their crimes.
Sadly, each year, there are tens of thousands of incidences of sexual abuse of children, many of which never make the news cycle. One such story happened in Atlanta. At its annual Change Makers’ Breakfast, the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy hosted keynote speaker Rachel Sowers, a survivor of sexual abuse and sex trafficking in metro Atlanta. Rachel’s horrifying experience did not make headlines, yet hers is a story we need to hear. Raised in an upper middle-class family in Pasadena, California, Rachel was a high school honor student and beauty pageant queen who decided to attend college at Emory University. During her junior year, she began modeling part-time and performing in music videos. It was in this environment that Rachel was coerced and manipulated by what she calls a “CEO Pimp,” who used her personal information, social security number and threats of violence against her and her family to force her against her will into domestic sex trafficking. Rachel suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse for 10 months until another victim of the same pimp reported his crimes to police.
Child sexual abuse affects all of us. 20% of all victims are abused before their 8th birthday and one in 10 children will be abused before age 18. This year alone, approximately 400,000 babies born will be victims of sexual abuse.
Victims suffer emotionally and physically. Emotional and mental health problems are often a consequence of abuse. Physical manifestations include substance abuse, delinquency, and academic and sexual behavior problems. Similarly, abuse victims frequently turn to criminal behavior. As a society, these consequences translate into increased healthcare costs, criminal justice costs, and child welfare costs, and significant productivity losses.
It is easy to look the other way. It is easy to read the headlines, shake our heads in disgust and do nothing. But it is not so easy if we stop, and realize that this epidemic affects our own children – your children, my children – and their future. Imagine if your son, who plays high school or college football, or .any sport at any level, was being sexually abused by his coach, a person he admires and respects. Suppose that it is your daughter being treated for a sports injury by a doctor that is sexually violating her repeatedly during routine examinations. Or simply substitute Rachel Sowers’ name in her story with your child’s name. Children are sexually abused every day in our community. Often, the perpetrators are people we know and trust: relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, coaches, troop leaders, clergy, etc. In fact, 90% of abusers are people who the victim and their family know and trust.
It also is easy to take action to help stop abuse in your community and family – and keep your children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and friends’ children safe. The Georgia Center’s website lists 30 prevention tips for parents and organizations. Some simple steps you can take right away are:
- Participate in Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children training to learn the 5 steps to protect children. This 5 hour training is offered at Georgia Center and at hospitals around metro Atlanta on a frequent basis. It is the only adult-focused, evidenced based curriculum proven to increase knowledge and change behaviors promoting protective steps. Encourage organizations that look after children to train their employees.
- See Something? – Say Something. Be an active bystander. If you see a situation that makes you feel uneasy, do not assume that someone else will respond. Be empowered to say and do something.
- Start talking with your children about sexual abuse and the value and privacy of their bodies when they are young, and always call body parts by their proper names.
- Let go of the “stranger danger” myth. Empower children to say “NO” to an adult. Never force children to give affection.
- Maintain open lines of communication with your pre-teens and teens. Be a calm listener and avoid being judgmental. Parents don’t always need to have all the answers. Talk openly about topics like sexting and cyber-bullying.
- Pay attention to sudden changes in a child’s mood or behavior. These signs potentially can be an indicator that a child has been sexually abused. Take interest and ask some simple, open-ended questions: “It seems like something is bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?”
At its annual Flag Raising Memorial, the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy honored and remembered the 23 Atlanta area children, ranging in age from less than one year old to 16 years old, who died this year from sexual abuse. We can do better. We can make a difference if we are willing to make it our business. What will you do next?
If you are concerned about sudden behavioral/emotional changes or about the healthy development in your child, call Prevent Child Abuse Georgia’s toll-free informational and referral helpline 1-800-CHILDREN (1-800-244-5373).
Lawrence Kasmen serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, an organization whose mission is to champion the needs of sexually and severely physically abused children through prevention, intervention, therapy and collaboration. Since 1987, the Center has served more than 17,000 children in Fulton and DeKalb counties who have been sexually or physically abused or have witnessed violence.