Speak up, save a child

Published 10:36 am Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When I was growing up, Joe Paterno was to my household what Bear Bryant was to many of you.
The news in the past month has been so shocking, so disturbing — no matter whether you were a fan of Penn State or not. As a friend said, “If you can’t trust Joe Paterno, who can you trust?”
But if there is anything good that could come out of the scandal that surrounds Penn State, perhaps it is this: We need to learn the signs of child abuse, and we need to learn how and when to report it.
So much has been made about who knew what and when, and why university officials allegedly attempted to cover up allegations that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children he worked with through his Second Mile charity.
The details in a grand jury report indicting Sandusky are simply disgusting. The scandal has taken down a beloved football coach who, while he has not been legally implicated in the alleged cover-up, at least must be morally culpable if he could have done more to help the victims of abuse. And an assistant coach who witnessed one of the alleged acts has been raked over the coals for not doing more himself.
It is easy, in hindsight, for all of us to say, “I would have done more.”
Stephanie Jackson, director of the Kathy Hill Child Advocacy Center, which serves Escambia County, knows how we can do more.
Anyone who suspects child abuse can learn the signs — and report their suspicions to the Department of Human Resources.
“All adults have a responsibility to learn the signs of abuse and be vigilant in protecting children,” Jackson said.
Among the signs:
• Physical signs of sexual abuse are not common, although redness, rashes or swelling in the genital area, urinary tract infections, or other such symptoms should be carefully investigated. Also, physical problems associated with anxiety, such as chronic stomach pain or headaches, may occur.
• Emotional or behavioral signals are more common. These can run from “too perfect” behavior, to withdrawal and depression, to unexplained anger and rebellion.
• Sexual behavior and language that are not age-appropriate can be a red flag.
• Be aware that in some children there are no signs whatsoever.
Jackson also notes that sex offenders are “clever” about finding ways to have access to children. They even “groom” adults to lower their boundaries about contact with children in the same way they groom children for sexual contact, she said.
Perhaps this is also an opportunity for parents to talk to their children about safe and unsafe touches — and who to go to if they are victims.
But we cannot make children responsible for their own protection.
“All adults have the moral and ethical obligation to report suspected child abuse, irrespective of whether or not they have a legal obligation to do so as a mandated reporter,” Jackson said. “And, fulfilling one’s legal obligation, which varies by state, is not a replacement for exercising one’s moral responsibility to personally report suspected abuse.
I would say that we expect tremendous courage on the part of victims to make disclosures about their abuse, as adults we can do no less in believing them and reporting this to alleviate their suffering.”