Home Light from the darkness on sex-abuse tragedy

Light from the darkness on sex-abuse tragedy


If there is to be any good to come out of the horrific allegations of child sexual abuse involving a former Penn State assistant football coach, it could be this – that the firestorm of media attention on the Penn State case could make people more aware of the potential for this kind of thing to happen and take steps to try to prevent it from happening.

“Ninety percent of child sexual assaults are perpetrated by people that the family knows, and the majority of those are not just someone that the family knows, but that the family really trusts. That’s a huge issue that’s coming to light more, and one that’s really, really critical. There’s a lot of misconceptions about who the perpetrators usually are,” said Nicole Poulin, the violence prevention supervisor in the Office of Family Health Services at the Virginia Department of Health.

That’s the hard reality to accept – that as much attention as we put on so-called “stranger danger,” the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases involve family, extended family, family friends, caregivers or others in positions of trust. Another hard reality to accept – that this all happens basically under our noses without us either knowing it or being able to put all the pieces together to figure it out.

Or, as in the Penn State football case, sometimes some are aware of details and choose to fail to act.

“Covering up sexual abuse – or ignoring or not responding – is fairly common. It doesn’t surprise me that people seemed to want to protect the abuser rather than the children in terms of his reputation and that sort of thing,” said

Gianna Gariglietti, the executive director of The Collins Center, a Harrisonburg-based nonprofit that works on violence-prevention issues, including issues specific to child sexual abuse.

The thrust of media and public outrage over the apparent coverup at Penn State has put a new emphasis on the responsibility of people who see something inappropriate firsthand or are made aware that something inappropriate is going on to report what they know. An unseen benefit is that the media coverage on the Penn State scandal highlights that boys are exposed to sexual abuse as well.

“Most people just think of girls or women being sexually abused, but the number of boys being victimized are anywhere from one in six to one in eight boys will be sexually abused by the time they’re 18,” Gariglietti said. “I don’t think we’ve done a great job as a society in making boys and men feel comfortable in talking about this issue. Hopefully this can bring that to light in some way, and more men and boys can say, Yes, this happened to me.”

Another lesson that Poulin hopes we as society pull from the Penn State tragedy is to get parents thinking about what they can do to protect their children. If, for example, your child is involved in any sort of youth program, Poulin said, you need to ask what the program’s child-protection policy is.

“Do they have a policy where staff are never in a one-on-one situation with children, and if they are, is it in a visible place that’s accessible and can be interrupted? Are they doing background checks? Are they doing thorough interviews on staff? Those are some concrete things that can be done and that parents can do to protect their kids,” Poulin said.

Most important to Gariglietti is vigilance.

“It’s a shame that in this scenario people actually visually saw things happen that didn’t get reported to law enforcement. There are a lot of situations where we don’t physically see or know something for sure, but we just kind of have a feeling, or we wonder, and there’s not something to report. Those are the instances where we can definitely help people understand and get information about how to address these types of situations and try to prevent child abuse if we suspect it’s occuring. I just think there’s a lot adults can do to protect children,” Gariglietti said.


Online Resources on Child Sexual Abuse

The Virginia Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services (CPS) goal is to identify, assess and provide services to children and families in an effort to protect children, preserve families, whenever possible, and prevent further maltreatment. Visit online to learn about seeking serves and help for youth you believe may be victims or at risk of sexual abuse or neglect.  http://www.dss.virginia.gov/family/cps/index2.cgi Toll free: 800.552.7096, Virginia: 804.786.8536

Darkness to Light – http://www.d2l.org. The mission of Darkness to Light is to empower people to prevent child sexual abuse. Their programs raise awareness of the prevalence and consequences of child sexual abuse by educating adults about the steps they can take to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to the reality of child sexual abuse.  This program includes steps that youth serving organizations can take to reduce the risk of child sexual abuse.

Stop It Now – http://www.stopitnow.org. Stop It Now works at preventing the sexual abuse of children by mobilizing adults, families and communities to take actions that protect children before they are harmed. Their website has information and resources on identifying the warning signs of abuse, seeking help, and the roles adults and communities can play in preventing child sexual abuse.

The Boys Town National Hotline – http://www.boystown.org, 800.448.3000. The Boys Town National hotline is a 24-hour crisis, resource and referral line. Trained counselors can respond to your questions every day of the week, 365 days a year. Services in Spanish are also available.

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network – http://www.rainn.org. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE and the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at www.rainn.org, and publicizes the hotline’s free, confidential services; educates the public about sexual assault; and leads national efforts to prevent sexual assault, improve services to victims and ensure that rapists are brought to justice.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center – http://www.nsvrc.org. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center recently posted an information packet. This information packet was developed for sexual violence prevention educators, advocates, and their allied partners in public health and other disciplines. The packet contains resources to support the prevention of child sexual abuse and draws from research on child sexual abuse prevention programming, child sexual abuse risk and protective factors, and the public health model of prevention. It can be found here: http://www.nsvrc.org/publications/child-sexual-abuse-prevention-information-packet

The National Center for Victims of Crime, The National Center for Victims of Crime advocates for victims’ rights, trains professionals who work with victims, and serves as a trusted source of information on victims’ issues. You can find information on the issue of child sexual abuse here:  http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?dbName=DocumentViewer&DocumentID=32315.

Prevent Child Abuse Virginia (PCAV) is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to prevent child abuse and neglect by valuing children, strengthening families and engaging communities. http://www.preventchildabuseva.org/.

Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance – http://www.vsdvalliance.org. The Action Alliance focuses on providing resources and information to advocates and residents of Virginia. The Action Alliance also operates the statewide Virginia Family Violence & Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-838-8238 v/tty), a toll-free, confidential, 24-hour service that provides crisis intervention, support, information, and referrals to family violence and sexual assault survivors, their friends and families, professionals, and the general public.



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