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Lessons from the Penn State child sexual assault scandal

The terrible events of the past week at Penn State University have saddened and shocked the nation. Most of us think we would do anything we could do protect children if we witnessed abuse or assault - yet respected adults who held leadership positions are now being charged with turning a blind eye to the sexual assault of children; a respected educational institution is being shaken to its roots for a potential cover up and massive failure to protect young victims. Among those dismissed from their jobs and facing investigations are famed football coach Joe Paterno and university President Graham Spanier. In addition, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz have also been charged with failing to report the suspected abuse.

As the scandal unfolds, we learn that many opportunities to intervene or investigate were missed. Perhaps one of the most puzzling and disturbing questions surrounds assistant coach Mike McQueary who witnessed the sexual assault of a 10-year old boy in a campus shower almost a decade ago. While he did report this the next day, many are left wondering why he didn't he act immediately to stop such a terrible thing.

In How adults justify not reporting child abuse the Washington Post's Janice D'Arcy looks at reasons why adults fail to report the sexual assault of children. She cites a Boston Medical Center research study that shows even some doctors, when confronted with clear signs of child abuse, did not report the injuries to protective services.

"The researchers concluded that the doctors had adequate training in recognizing abuse, but were not as well informed about why they should report it.

The story goes on: “Doctors may question their own judgment of whether an injury is enough to meet the standard of reasonable suspicion for abuse, the threshold for reporting in Massachusetts, Siegel said. Or they may worry that a parent will become angry or blame them.”

She also notes that in the Penn State scandal as in other scandals of this nature, the impulse appears to be to focus attention on the adults rather than the children.

This issue is thoughtfully explored from the viewpoint of the victim in an article on 1in6, a website devoted to helping men who were childhood victims of sexual assault: Why Do Adults Fail to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse or Exploitation?. This article seeks to help survivors understand the potential reasons why adults failed to help them.

"And yet, the sad truth: Millions of children have unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. Many of them believe, correctly, that someone else knows or should know about their situation, but does little or nothing to protect them. Some tell adults what’s going on, seeking protection and help, only to be met with disbelief, denial, blame, or even punishment. How can that be?"

Mandatory reporting laws
Whether adults are comfortable or uncomfortable about reporting suspected sexual assault of children is secondary to the issue that in most states, it is the law. In some states, this obligation is restricted to helping professions, such as teachers, healthcare workers, educators and law enforcement. In other states, reporting obligations are not restricted by profession. In an article about abuse reporting laws, AP reporter David Crary notes that, "In more than 40 states, the prevailing policy is that such reports must be made to police or child-protection authorities swiftly and directly, with no option for delegating the task to others and then not following through."

Here are some resources to learn about mandatory reporting laws:

State Laws on Child Abuse and Neglect - All States have enacted laws and policies that define State roles and responsibilities in protecting vulnerable children from abuse and neglect. Issues addressed in statute include mandatory reporting, screening reports, proper maintenance and disclosure of records, domestic violence, and other issues.

Mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect - Each State has laws requiring certain people to report concerns of child abuse and neglect. While some States require all people to report their concerns, many States identify specific professionals as mandated reporters; these often include social workers, medical and mental health professionals, teachers, and childcare providers. Specific procedures are usually established for mandated reporters to make referrals to child protective services.

Additional Resources
1in6 - Approximately one in six boys is sexually abused before age 16. This site's mission is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. It also includes serving family members, friends, and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.

MaleSurvivor - resources and support for men who were sexually victimized as children, adolescents, or adults.

Sexual Abuse of Males - site by psychologist and therapist Jim hopper, which also includes child sexual abuse statistics, research and resources. See resources for parents & caregivers.

RAINN - Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network - The nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. In addition to offering a National Sexual Assault Hotline and various resources, it also includes links to other resources on topics related to child abuse and sexual abuse.

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