It was late Friday night, within minutes of the announcement that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had been found guilty of 45 of 48 counts of sexually abusing children, that the National Child Protection Training Center released its eloquently worded reaction: “With this verdict, we can finally cease calling the children abused by Jerry Sandusky ‘alleged’ victims and call them what they really are — courageous.”
That courage took a long time to percolate. In many cases, victims recounted assaults that had taken place years ago. But judging by the tears that fell during their testimony, the ensuing decades have done little to dim the pain of being abused by a man they trusted and revered. “Some wounds,” noted the statement, “never heal.”
In fact, new research increasingly points to the effects of toxic stress in childhood — and sexual abuse surely qualifies — on adult health. “When a child’s interaction with other people breaks down, it can have lifetime consequences,” says Dr. Robert Block, a child-abuse pediatrician who is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Stress has been linked, not surprisingly, not only to depression but also to increased risk for heart disease, suicide, substance abuse, even cancer.
It goes without saying that conscientious parents would go to great lengths to spare their children from such experiences. And experts say the Sandusky trial revealed many valuable lessons for parents looking to do just that.
Lesson No. 1: One not-so-obvious insight? Don’t tell secrets. “Children are taught very early to keep secrets,” says Block. “It’s a game. When children are being molested, the perpetrator tells them, ‘This is a secret. Don’t tell anybody.’ So we encourage parents to not include kids in secrets. Talk instead in terms of surprises.”
Lesson No. 2: Be leery of any adult who seems smitten with your kid. Child molesters are savvy; they often prey on vulnerable kids — poor children, or those whose parents aren’t often around. Lauren’s Kids — an organization started by Lauren Book, who was sexually abused for six years by her nanny — shared this explanation of how predators work, written by one of Book’s parents:
As a parent who has gone through the aftermath of sexual abuse and studied a lot about pedophile tactics, the allegations against Jerry Sandusky are a classic case of child sexual predator and pedophile grooming. The prosecution has done well in explaining the consistent and predictable grooming process that Jerry Sandusky employed — from building trust with his victims, to currying favor and control by buying them gifts and giving them access to the Penn State football program, and then forcing them to participate in sex acts and then remain quiet about it.
Jerry Sandusky groomed his victims so well that some of them have kept in touch with him as recently as two years ago. Many from the defense are asking why would they, in fact, do such a thing if it were true that Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused them. But that is how predators work. They manipulate children and control them by bribing, brainwashing, threatening, controlling and embarrassing them.
Lesson No. 3: Perhaps most important is simply paying attention to your kids’ rhythms and learning to recognize potential signs of abuse: changes in mood, behavior or school performance and reluctance to participate in activities.
Lesson No. 4: It’s never too early to start teaching your kids about what kinds of touches are appropriate. In their testimony, Sandusky’s victims shared his introductory technique: a seemingly friendly hand on the thigh, placed there to gauge the child’s level of discomfort. Talking about touch can begin with toddlers in the bath. As you soap them up, explain that parents can touch their kids’ private parts to help them get clean, but no one other than doctors should be doing that. “The best pediatricians explain they’re going to touch them to make sure the child’s body is healthy, but if someone else does that, it’s not O.K.,” says Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, which educates child-protection professionals.
Lesson No. 5: Keep the conversation going as kids become teens. It’s a mistake to assume that most children will readily tell a grownup they’ve been sexually assaulted. “Imagine the most positive sexual experience of your life — would you want to tell your parents?” says Vieth. “Now imagine you’re a little boy or a girl who had a horrible sexual experience, often at the hands of someone you know and trust. Children have such conflicted feelings about the perpetrator.”
Lesson No. 6: Listen when kids talk. One of Sandusky’s victims said he’d told guidance counselors that he’d been abused but he wasn’t believed. “They said, ‘He [Sandusky] has a heart of gold. He wouldn’t do something like that,'” the teen testified, choking back tears. “They didn’t believe me.”
Research confirms that we have a tendency to dismiss what children tell us about sexual abuse. A decade ago, a study in Child Abuse & Neglect looked at the reactions of teachers presented with a hypothetical story of a little boy who told them he’d been sexually abused. Just 26% of the teachers said they would report the allegation, with many justifying their choice by saying they couldn’t know if the child was telling the truth.
It’s worth noting that rates of sexual abuse by casual acquaintances and caregivers have dropped 61% from 1992 to 2009, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire. But it’s unclear how much comfort parents should take in those figures. Block points out that national statistics take into account only those allegations reported to child-protection officials; Sandusky’s victims, for example, would not have appeared in national statistics because law enforcement handled their claims. Anecdotally, says Block, child-abuse pediatricians have not seen a decline in reports of childhood sexual abuse.
Regardless, David Finkelhor, the CCRC director, observed in an earlier article that parents are now “much more vigilant than they used to be.”
Many know to ask whether activities their child participates in adhere to a policy of “two-deep leadership” — a practice pioneered by the Boy Scouts to make sure that at least two adults are present when children are around.
“If your league doesn’t have rules about this, it’s a problem,” says Bob Cook, who writes Your Kid’s Not Going Pro, a youth-sports blog on Forbes.com. Just as schools do with volunteers, says Cook, sports leagues should conduct background checks on coaches. Yet even Cook, who has coached all four of his kids’ sports teams, wonders whether doubting coaches’ integrity could backfire. “It’s a fine line,” he says. “You can’t go and assume everyone who deals with your kid is a child molester.”