With the verdict in the Jerry Sandusky trial behind us, it’s worth reconsidering one of the most troubling aspects of this case: Why do many people, including professionals such as psychologists and pediatricians, fail to report child sexual abuse? It is well known that authorities at Penn State, including head football coach Joe Paterno, did not report what they had learned to legal authorities. The incident witnessed by assistant coach Mike McQueary was passed up the chain at Penn State, but no one took the crucial step of informing law-enforcement officials. This failure allowed Sandusky to remain free to continue to abuse children.
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It is easy to convince ourselves that we would act more decisively if we were in the same situation, and many people indeed do. But even medical and mental-health professionals with a legal duty to report abuse often fail to do so. A review of literature by psychologist Krisann Alvarez and colleagues, published in Aggression and Violent Behavior, found that 40% of professionals such as teachers, school psychologists and social workers failed to report suspected child abuse at some time in their careers.
Certainly, in some cases, neither professionals nor laypeople fully understand the subtle signs that manifest in abused children. But the review by Alvarez suggests that a strong set of beliefs prevents the reporting of suspected abuse. First, people believe that reporting abuse will harm the child or family. They may worry about the disruption of a child’s being removed to foster care if the abuse is by a family member (as it often is) or about the potential trauma the legal system may inflict on the child, who may be asked to serve as a witness. People may also be concerned that reporting abuse could harm their own relationship to the victim, who may have told them of the abuse only after swearing them to secrecy first. And of course, they may also be afraid of being wrong, especially when the suspected perpetrator is a prominent figure in the community, as Jerry Sandusky was.
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Second, some people don’t report because they believe that little will be done by law enforcement. Alvarez notes that many professionals fail to report because they think Child Protective Services will not take rigorous action. Third, people worry about the ramifications for themselves. Some may be concerned about being sued by the alleged perpetrators or doing potential damage to the reputations of businesses or institutions if the alleged abuse took place on their premises or under their auspices. This is the veil of suspicion that makes Penn State’s officials look bad: they seem to have traded the welfare of child victims for the veneer of their own reputations. In this sense, the issues for Penn State are not dissimilar to those experienced within the Catholic Church in its dubious handling of child sexual abuse among clergy.
Of course, given that so much child abuse is perpetrated by individuals close to the family — including by family members themselves — people may simply find it impossible to believe that a beloved spouse, sibling or friend could be an abuser of children. It is easier to report a stranger of distant association, like a coach or teacher, than a family member or close friend. In my own clinical work evaluating parents for Child Protective Services, it was not uncommon to find mothers who had children removed not for abusing their children themselves but for failing to protect them from boyfriends or male relatives. Fearing the loss of the relationship with the perpetrator was often a deciding factor for these mothers.
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The protection of child victims depends on people bravely coming forward to report suspected abuse in good faith. It’s always difficult to get human behavior to change, but reporting rates would be improved by emphasizing our moral responsibility to do so and the demonstrated success of such efforts. Dutiful reporting of suspected abuse remains the only avenue for relief for many victims of sexual abuse. By failing to report, we are morally responsible for the continued suffering of child victims we fail to protect.
If there is a silver lining to this horrible episode at Penn State, it is that the verdict for Sandusky may help others with knowledge of sexual abuse to come forward. Victims of abuse will see that the stories of the victims in this case were taken seriously, even though the accused was a revered public figure who had founded a charity organization for children. Witnesses to abuse or those who suspect abuse will see that the system can work and that their actions can serve to protect children and get pedophiles out of circulation. The separate criminal trial that awaits Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and retired senior vice president Gary Schultz on perjury charges for lying to the grand jury investigating the abuse allegations may further discourage cover-ups. Seeing the system visibly work is a key element in making sure that those with knowledge of abuse will come forward in the future. Imperfect though the system may be, it can work.