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Keeping Kids Safe: No One Can Do Everything, But Everyone Can Do Something

Most of us want to live in a country we can be proud of, where people and powerful institutions do their best to ensure that all children are safe from child abuse or neglect. The specter of personal and institutional failures that put children in harm’s way at Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University has left those of us who advocate for children wondering what went wrong.

Yet along with leaving child advocates (and many of you) angry and appalled, the scandals should serve as a wake-up call. No formal title or professional responsibility is required for each of us to play a role in raising healthy children and in protecting them from abuse and its long-term negative effects.

In the days after allegations against retired Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky surfaced, Prevent Child Abuse Virginia’s 800-CHILDREN Helpline received several phone calls from distressed adult men who had been victims of sexual abuse as children. The unfolding news reports had caused them to relive their trauma.

On a broader scale, several studies produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revealed that victims of child sexual abuse and other types of abuse as youths enter adulthood impaired in ways that affect their relationships, their health, their productivity as employees and ultimately, their lifespan.

I share these facts to highlight the reality that prevention is powerful. It can yield a better life for everyone involved – potential victims and their families, acquaintances and even future employers.

While we watch to see what will happen at the universities currently in the spotlight, let’s consider what we can do as voters, community residents and individuals who care about children.

As a state and nation, we can demand that any culture that exists in university sports (and in other institutions) that opens the door for this type of alleged abuse to repeatedly take place, be changed.

As a community charged with keeping kids safe, we can demand that laws be changed to require that incidents of abuse, or suspected abuse, be reported not only to a supervisor or boss, but also to legal authorities, by the person who has direct knowledge of the abuse. Virginia is one of five states (including Pennsylvania) where that requirement does not exist for all those who are mandated to report suspected abuse. Prevent Child Abuse Virginia and our advocacy partners will be addressing this concern on behalf of Virginia’s children during the upcoming General Assembly session. In fact, two bills already have been pre-filed.

And as parents, grandparents, teachers, caregivers and responsible adults, we can demand that our fellow citizens do the morally right thing, and not allow other interests to take precedence over the best interests of a child.

We should be outraged that subsequent abuse allegedly occurred at Penn State because those with information did not act beyond their “legal” obligation. We also should be outraged that it took a courageous victim, just 15 years old, to break through the secrecy and silence created by adults around these alleged incidents.

Prevent Child Abuse Virginia applauds the decisions made by University leaders to fire individuals who failed to act or who played pivotal roles in the alleged abuse. Our organization hopes these moves indicate that the universities are taking steps to improve their obligation to their communities and states.

As we turn our focus toward healing the children who were victims of this abuse, we must redouble our efforts to make sure there aren’t more.

Talk to children you know and love about the importance of confiding in a trusted adult if or when someone tries to harm them. Allow your child to see Hugs & Kisses, a child sexual abuse prevention play that Theatre IV performs in elementary schools around the state in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. Join our advocacy list and prepare to help us speak up for kids during the 2012 state legislative session. Become more well-informed about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it through “Stewards of Children” Training offered by our local Affiliate, Greater Richmond SCAN. And consider joining the National Movement for America’s Children (www.MovementforChildren.org) that our parent organization, Prevent Child Abuse America, is spearheading to encourage political leaders at the federal level and citizens to pay attention to children’s needs. You can join Prevent Child Abuse Virginia’s page on the website and also sign a pledge to demonstrate your support.

Together, we can ensure that future incidents like the alleged crimes that took place at Penn Staten and Syracuse are prevented from occurring in the first place. Together, we have the chance to make a meaningful impact in the lives of all children. I challenge you to help us establish and maintain policies and programs that promote the healthy growth and development of children in your local community and statewide.

This column penned by Prevent Child Abuse Virginia Executive Director Johanna Schuchert appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Op-Ed section in December 2011.

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