The child sex abuse scandal at Penn State University has captured the attention of the country. While the alleged perpetrator will be the focus of much of the discussion, The Family Tree, Maryland's leading child abuse prevention organization, suggests that we shift the focus to what we can do today to prevent this from happening again tomorrow.
Unfortunately, it is all too often a public tragedy like this that reminds us that safety is not the responsibility of the child but the responsibility of us as adults and caring, committed others. Abuse can happen to any child, regardless of their age, race or their family's socioeconomic status. We all have a responsibility to protect our children and promote their safety and healthy well-being.
The consequences of abuse can be devastating, often resulting in mental health or substance abuse issues that can affect the victim and their family for a lifetime. When one translates the cost of the child abuse into dollars, the amount is staggering — costing Marylander's a conservative $1.5 billion annually.
At The Family Tree, we are working in partnership with leaders across the state to launch a campaign against child sexual abuse. The name of this movement starts with a single word: Enough. This movement, the Enough Abuse campaign, will be piloted in two local communities to spread the word about child sexual abuse and what can be done to stop it. We have seen enough abuse and it is time we take steps now to stop it! Here's how:
1. Be careful in who you allow in your family's circle of trust. The vast majority of sexual abuse happens when adults and children are in one-on-one situations. You can reduce the risk by reducing opportunity. Carefully consider any situation that places your child alone with an adult in an unsupervised situation. Support activities for your child that can occur in a group setting where there are several adults present. If your child must be left alone with an adult while you're away, try to arrange for someone to drop in unexpectedly from time to time.
2. Talk to your children early and often. As adults, it is our responsibility to communicate to children that it is OK to talk to us or ask questions about any situations that make them feel confused or uncomfortable. We need to help children understand that no matter what, their feelings will be respected and taken seriously.
3. Monitor your child's Internet use. Establish ground rules early and revisit them as your child gets older. The goal is that they become a responsible user of the Internet.
4. Stay alert to possible behavioral changes in your child. Changes in a child's or teen's behavior can sometimes be clues that sexual abuse has occurred. However, just like physical signs, these changes can be brought on by other stresses and events. Again, there is no foolproof checklist of signs that will flag for you whether a child has been sexually abused.
5. If suspicious, check it out. Because child sexual abuse can be difficult to identify, many people who suspect abuse aren't sure what they should do. They sometimes hesitate to share their suspicions with others who could help, such as the Department of Child Protective Services. This hesitancy is understandable, but the tragic result for children is that almost 90 percent of sexual abusers are never reported. You can change these odds. Here are some contacts: http://dhr.maryland.gov/cps/address.php.
6. Need trusted advice or help? If you have concerns, need advice on parenting issues call The Family Tree's 24-hour parenting help line at 800-243-7337.
I believe that together we have the chance to make a meaningful impact in the lives of all children. Together, we can ensure that the next Penn State incident is prevented from occurring in the first place.
Patricia K. Cronin, Baltimore
The writer is executive director of The Family Tree.