socialworkingingeorgia

all things social work

Child Sexual Abuse: The Devil We Know vs. the Devil We Don’t

on January 17, 2012

Wise words from Mr. Burrell…–Joy

From http://www.thecrimereport.org/archive/2012-01-child-sexual-abuse-the-devil-we-know-vs-the-devil-we

By William D. Burrell

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 04:30

 It has been just over two months since the news of the arrest of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky broke. The torrent of electronic and print media coverage was overwhelming, but the facts alone are stunning: a career college football coach and pillar of the community charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of a dozen young men over some twenty years.

The after-effects are equally shocking. The Penn State president and two high level university administrators were fired, followed shortly by the departure of Joe Paterno, the university’s iconic head football coach. The legal process—criminal and civil—will take years to conclude, and that time and perhaps more will be needed for the Penn State community to heal.

While Sandusky is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the public record of the allegations against him contained in the grand jury reports paint a portrait of a classic serial child sex abuser with numerous victims over many years.

This portrait is consistent with the evidence we have about the behavior and offending patterns of this group of offenders.

However this case ultimately ends, it provides a cautionary tale about preventing child sexual abuse and an educational opportunity for all of us. This is a particularly important opportunity, given another recent high-profile, equally horrific, example of child sexual abuse.

The story of Jaycee Lee Dugard captured the attention of the nation and the media in 2009 when she was rescued from an eighteen year long captivity at the hands of her kidnapper.

She had been abducted off the street in South Lake Tahoe, CA by a paroled sex offender in 1991 when she was just 11 years old. During her captivity, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and gave birth to two children. Ultimately freed, she told heart-wrenching stories of her captivity that send chills down the spine of anyone who reads her testimony.

The Dugard case is an extreme example of the scenario parents everywhere fear. A child is abducted by a stranger from a public place that is presumed to be safe, and is sexually assaulted or worse. The case has echoes of the 1994 New Jersey case of Megan Kanka, who was abducted, raped and murdered by a paroled sex offender who lived across the street.

The Megan Kanka case triggered swift action in New Jersey. The package of laws known as “Megan’s Law” was written, considered, voted on and passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in four months time, which may be a record. Megan’s Law includes requirements for sex offender registration and community notification of the residence of the more serious offenders.

The philosophy behind this law is that registration of known sex offenders will enable law enforcement to keep track of them and let the public know where the highest-risk offenders them are living.

Subsequent laws adopted in other states and at the federal level have broadened the scope of  Megan’s Law.  Some states now prohibit registered sex offenders from establishing residence close to locations where children congregate (schools, playground, parks and day care centers). To the parent who fears a child abduction scenario, the provisions of Megan’s Law seem like a good idea. We know who the bad guys are, we know where they live, and we’ve made it illegal for them to live near our kids.

But whatever level of comfort the Megan’s Law provisions may provide, the Sandusky case raises a whole new set of issues that represent a larger threat to the safety of our children.

The evidence and experience demonstrates that our children are at much

greater risk of sexual assault at the hands not of a registered sex offender who

is a stranger, but of someone that they know and trust. That person is often also

known and trusted by the child’s parents. And the offense is likely to occur not

in a dark alley or a seedy van with blacked out windows, but at home or in a

place that should be safe, such as a school, a church or a sports locker room. 

A large number of child-victim sex offenders are not known to the criminal justice system.

They have not been caught and registered; so we don’t know who they are. Many of them occupy positions, either paid or volunteer, that involve regular contact with children. The offenders are often respected individuals whose motives are not suspect and whose reputations are often exemplary. They often take months and years to build relationships with children, gaining their trust and often establishing a situation where the child is emotionally or even financially dependent on the perpetrator. This contributes to the reluctance of the child to expose the abuse, and increases the guilt they feel if and when they do.

The allegations in the Sandusky case portray just this type of behavior, played out over many years with numerous victims.

The shock, surprise, disbelief and dismay that surrounded Sandusky’s arrest are also very common with these types of cases. In a recent case that broke in New Jersey just after Christmas, an elementary school vice principal and volunteer coach was charged with videotaping high school athletes in the locker room shower. A person who knew and trusted the alleged perpetrator said, “I have kids of my own and now I’ll never be able to trust anyone with my kids – no teacher, no coach, no one. Because if Pat Lott is dirty, there is no one I can trust.”

If the greater risk to our children is from people we know and trust in places

where they should be safe, what should we do? As a Star-Ledger (NJ) editorial

critical of residency restrictions for sex offenders noted, “To protect our kids,

we have to watch them, educate them and communicate with them”.

This is certainly a much more difficult challenge, but one that we must face up to. Kids need to know the appropriate boundaries for physical contact – what’s OK and what is not. They need to know that it is their right to say “no.”

They need to feel safe in discussing questionable situations and conduct with their parents. Parents too need to be aware of the danger signs, ask questions and take action when justified. Child-victim sex offenders rely on people—parents and victims— not saying anything, not questioning their actions when inappropriate because they are such “good guys.” We need to look behind bedroom doors and locker room doors, not just behind the bushes at the bus stop or playground.

There is an obvious need for leadership at the state and federal level to help citizens and communities address this situation.

We need help in developing and implementing the programs and educational efforts to help parents and their children, teachers and schools, communities and organizations across the country figure out how to meet the challenge of better protecting our kids.

It is unfortunate that the federal government is currently pursuing a strategy that embraces the “register and restrict” approach to sex offenders and attempts to take it to a new level. The Adam Walsh Act calls for the states to contribute information to a national sex offender registry. Significant expenditures are required at the state level. The state of Texas estimated that it would cost some $39 million for it to comply with the mandates of the Act. Some states, including Texas, have determined that the penalty they would suffer (the loss of 10% of federal justice assistance grants) isn’t worth the cost.

While some states may be rejecting the Adam Walsh Act for primarily financial reasons, we should use the opportunity to shift the focus to a strategy that addresses the reality on the ground.

As the Star-Ledger editorial concluded, “Tightening the noose around sex offenders gives is the illusion of safety. But in reality, it would leave our children less safe.”

I was a probation administrator in New Jersey when Megan’s Law was enacted and worked to develop and implement the registration policies for sex offenders on probation. I recall feeling that the effort, while well-intentioned and perhaps effective, would ultimately create a false sense of security for parents.

The true danger to kids was then—and continues to be—not the sex offenders we know, but rather those that we don’t.

William D. Burrell is a regular blogger for The Crime Report. An independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices, he was a member (2003-2007) of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Prior to joining the Temple faculty, Bill served for 19 years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system. Bill is chairman of the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and serves on APPA’s Board of Directors.  He has consulted, developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county levels. He welcomes reader comments.

Advertisements

One response to “Child Sexual Abuse: The Devil We Know vs. the Devil We Don’t

  1. Georgia: You may be interested in my recent post entitled Sexual Abuse PTSD in Children and Did Mom Know? You’re right: People, while caution is wise, are excessively fearful of pedophiles who are stranger. They should fear far more their own families, neighbors, church people and the like. Thanks once again for a great post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: