Jerry Sandusky probably will be locked up for the rest of his life, which would extract justice for his victims and provide protection for other potential victims in Pennsylvania.
But what about abuse victims closer to home?
The day after Sandusky, a former Penn State University football coach, was convicted of 45 child sex abuse charges, a dance teacher in Omaha made his first court appearance to face charges of sexually abusing three boys he had taught.
In late May, a Douglas County sheriff's deputy caught a 28-year-old man sexually assaulting his former girlfriend's 10-year-old sister in a pickup truck. In early May, a former Omaha youth football coach was convicted of sexually assaulting a girl from the age of 6 to 11. In March, a former youth pastor from Victory Fellowship Church in Council Bluffs was convicted of sexually abusing a teenage boy from the church.
Every week as the Sandusky case unfolded, just like every week all year, children abused by people they — and often their families — trusted have been brought to Project Harmony Child Protection Center in Omaha to see doctors, police and counselors. The center last year provided sexual abuse services to more than 1,300 children from metropolitan Omaha and southwest Iowa. And for every known incident of abuse, many more occur without being reported, experts say.
Meanwhile, as Sandusky awaits sentencing, parents send their children off to sports camps, summer camps, church camps, vacation Bible schools, sleepovers with friends or relatives and lots of other places where wonderful memories are made but where terrible trauma can occur.
One in four girls, and one in six boys, is abused by the age of 18, advocacy groups say.
Parents and other people with an interest in protecting children should think about the Sandusky case, said Gene Klein, executive director of Project Harmony.
The Penn State tragedy should make us aware, Klein said, but it should not make us paranoid.
“If you're paranoid, you're powerless,” he said. “If you're vigilant, you can make a difference.”
If there's a silver lining to the Sandusky cloud, following on the heels of clergy sex abuse scandals, it is that the public now knows that sexual abuse of children is a pervasive problem, Klein said. The next step is to become part of the solution.
The good news is that there are solutions. Sexual abuse reports are declining in the United States, in part because of increased public awareness and improved policies. And there are things everyone can do, said the Olympic medalist swimmer Margaret Hoelzer, a spokeswoman for the National Children's Advocacy Center. Hoelzer, who has been in Omaha for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, was abused at age 5 by the father of a family friend.
While people are still paying attention because of Sandusky, The World-Herald asked Klein, Hoelzer and other experts what parents can do to protect their children, and what the community can do to make youth programs safer for all children.
The following advice comes from their experience and training and a prevention-and-response program called Stewards of Children, developed by the South Carolina-based nonprofit organization Darkness to Light.
“There's this myth that sexual abuse occurs by strangers jumping out of the bushes,” Klein said. In reality, 90 percent of the time the perpetrator is someone the children know and the family trusts. They are people about whom “people would say, ‘Oh, that's a good guy, or a good woman, and I trust them and they're OK,' ” Klein said. “Just because we trust Father so-and-so, or Coach so-and-so, or Uncle so-and-so doesn't necessarily mean something couldn't happen with them.”
Often, a predator gradually builds a relationship with a child he or she is targeting, grooming the child for abuse, Klein said.
“You have lots of opportunity as a parent to stop the grooming process,” Klein said.
He said parents need to be cautious about where their children are, and for how long.
Inform your children
Parents often are understandably reluctant to talk to their younger children about sexuality, but there are ways to do so without confusing children or taking away their innocence.
“Open up a conversation to talk about sexuality with children at age 6 or 7,” Klein said. “Make sure you are communicating with them about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate.”
Parents can talk to children about good touch and bad touch. Use the actual names for body parts. Teach them which parts of their bodies other people should and should not touch. Teach them how to say no.
Children won't freak out about such a talk as much as parents freak out over the idea of it, Hoelzer said.
When she was abused as a 5-year-old, she said she felt uncomfortable and knew there was something not right, but she said it would have helped to know beforehand that it was actually wrong for her abuser to do what he did.
Hoelzer's abuser told her something that predators often do: “This is our secret. Don't tell your parents.”
Children should know not to keep secrets from their parents. If an adult tells them to keep a secret, they should tell a parent or another trusted adult such as a grandparent, teacher or school counselor.
Children should be taught that they can tell their parents anything, anytime, Klein said. Tell them it's your job to protect them.
For groups, there are a number of highly regarded programs available to teach even young children about recognizing, resisting and reporting abuse. They include “Bubbylonian Encounter,” a play presented to first- through third-graders by Completely Kids of Omaha and the “Circle of Grace” safe environment curriculum developed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha. Project Harmony offers the Darkness to Light curriculum for adults.
Ask questions, and expect answers
Ask about an organization's abuse-prevention policies before sending your child there. Don't be shy about conducting your inquiry at programs in which your children already are involved.
The questions only begin with “Do you have a policy?”
“We do criminal background checks” is no longer enough of an answer.
Stop It Now! — a child abuse prevention and protection center based in Massachusetts — suggests questions for parents to ask. Among them: Do organizers check references of staff? What is their policy about interactions between employees or volunteers and youths? How do they monitor interactions? What training do staff and volunteers receive about preventing child sexual abuse? How do they handle inappropriate behavior or allegations of sexual abuse?
It's very important for organizations to screen and train volunteers and staff, said Yvonne Cournoyer, a program director at Stop It Now! Staff and volunteers also should insist on clear policies and training, if they are not already in place.
Cournoyer, Klein and Hoelzer all stressed asking about policies for one-on-one time between adults and children, or between older children and younger ones. More than 80 percent of sexual abuse occurs in one-on-one time between adults and children.
Ask about specific situations: If an adult has to discipline a child, for example, the adult should not take the child into an office and close the door.
Hoelzer said USA Swimming, among other organizations, has taken steps to maintain the important relationships between coaches and athletes while reducing risks for abuse.
A coach should “never be alone with an athlete,” Hoelzer said. “If you're having a one-on-one conversation, it should be in a public venue.”
If a parent agrees to one-on-one time between the child and a coach or a mentor, Darkness to Light suggests ways the parent can protect the child. Drop in unexpectedly. Ask the adult about the specifics of any planned activities. Make sure the outings can be observed by you or other people. Tell the adults that you and the child are educated about sexual abuse.
Parents have learned that when researching prospective day cares, they should ask about dropping in unexpectedly, and do it, Klein said. They also should do that with programs for older children, he said.
If the organization doesn't allow that, that could be a red flag.
Be on time to pick up your child from sports practice or other activities. This eliminates opportunities for the child to be alone with a coach or other adult. It also sends a signal: You are an involved parent.
Look for behaviors and physical signs of sexual abuse, Klein said.
For example, “If your kid's starting to wet the bed, if they're withdrawing, they're not sleeping,” he said. “They might try to overcompensate, try to be too perfect.” They might have nightmares or the sweats.
“There can be physical indicators — rashes, swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, warts; those kinds of things in a 5-year-old are not common,” Klein said.
Younger children might be overly curious about sexuality for their age. Pre-teens and teenagers might become preoccupied with alcohol or suddenly have money out of nowhere.
Such behaviors and conditions might not mean that a child is being sexually abused, but they should at least trigger parent questions and possibly a visit to a medical or mental health professional.
Klein cited a recent case of a man with a lawn service who hired teenage boys to work for him. “He paid them cash and gave them cigarettes and alcohol and then, one by one, started molesting these boys, doing sexual stuff to them. It was his way of controlling them, giving them cash, it was his pay-off to them.”
Parents should ask questions if their child comes home with money.
“That alone doesn't mean your kid's being molested, but you need to pay attention and get more information,” Klein said.
Know what to do, and do it
If a child tells a parent he was sexually abused, the parent should believe him, and not overreact.
False reports are rare, and anger or overly emotional reactions can shut down an abused child.
“If they say, ‘So-and-so has done this to me,' you can't give the impression that you're going to go over there and chew out the alleged perpetrator,” Klein said. “You have to be level-headed. You have to be ... kind of in charge of the situation. ...Your job is not to take the law into your own hands. Your job is to say, ‘That is awful. That is not going to continue, and we're going to make sure that that doesn't continue.' And then you get professional help to be the ones to really investigate what's going on.”
Report all cases of suspected abuse. Parents can call state abuse and neglect hotlines. In Nebraska, the number is 800-652-1999. In Iowa, it's 800-362-2178. Parents also can report their concerns to law enforcement.
Hoelzer, now 29, told her mother when she was 11, after the abuse had ended. Her mother was redecorating a bedroom, and Margaret asked to help. As they worked, Margaret began to tell her mother what had happened.
Her mother listened. She stayed calm. Hoelzer's parents took her to the Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala. She said she received wonderful treatment there, even though her abuser wasn't prosecuted.
Often, children tell someone other than parents, such as a teacher. Employees or volunteers at an organization that works with kids might see or hear things that make them suspicious. If you suspect abuse, report it.
Nebraska and Iowa, like all states, have mandatory reporting laws.
Sometimes, people hesitate because they're uncertain, Klein said. They don't want to harm someone's reputation if the allegation is untrue. You don't have to be sure, he said. You're not the judge or the jury or the prosecutor.
“You're just saying you saw this happened; this doesn't seem right,” Klein said. “Our message is, ‘Have the courage to come forward.' Parallel that with the courage of a 6-year-old kid to come forward. ... It's about building up people's courage to step up and make sure they make the call.”
Help organizations that serve children. Volunteer at an after-school program. Donate to organizations that work with kids who may be at risk.
The more good people who work in an organization, who follow abuse-prevention policies and insist that others do, too, the better the culture is for children. That could make potential predators leave, or not try anything.
“Government can't pay for this,” Klein said. “It really does take a whole community to get behind and make sure that there are organizations out there for kids so that this doesn't happen to them.”
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