My life and employment experiences have helped me understand the importance of translating research into policy and practice. I know that the well-being of children in a society requires a national policy framework that promotes a shared vision for the healthy development of children. I also know that even with research and evidence guiding policy development, it is actions by people that ultimately determine the effectiveness of a given policy position. In 40 years of service in government and non-profit institutions I have learned the simple truth that when possible, preventing adversities in a child’s life is more effective than trying to fix something that never should have been broken. In the words of Fredrick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” While originally said in a different context, the words provide clarity and direction in a discussion about preventing child sexual abuse.
From a national perspective recent attention over the past several decades has focused a “spotlight” on a social issue that previously had left survivors with feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and often helplessness. Now, legislation extending the statute of limitations and increasing the occupations of mandatory reporters are being considered more frequently than ever before. And while such dialogue is greatly appreciated and overdue, legislation without citizen action is a missed opportunity. We are a nation built upon the rule of law, but as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We must seize the current momentum so that justice can be served to child sexual abuse survivors and to prevent other innocent children from harm As a nation and as a society, we must believe that every child, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, and no matter what their circumstances are, has the right to a great childhood free from the horror of abuse.
While we all can probably agree with this sentiment, making it a reality has not, and will not, be easy. Great strides are being made in the public’s understanding about child sexual abuse. Research is clear that while “stranger danger” exists, the more common manipulation of a child is perpetrated by people who use their position of trust, influence and personal relationships. Bringing about this paradigm shift, while welcomed, presents barriers to the effective protection of children that policy and legislation by itself cannot solve. There are three main reasons for this: misperceptions about the “family bubble,” the inconsistent understanding and application of “what to do” and the natural reluctance of most people to discuss sexuality. Unnecessary and inappropriate shame prevents this topic from getting the exposure it needs.
The “family bubble” concept indicates that there is an attitude (perhaps even a social norm) in the United States that children are the sole responsibility of the parent. As such, “outsiders” have no right to intervene without being asked. There is an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the parent and the family to keep a child safe and that the parent and the family unquestionably know what is best. This prevailing attitude is compounded by the lack of a clear message and a menu of actions of what to do when a situation occurs involving someone else’s child. The US Department of Homeland Security has reduced the obligation of everyone’s role to fight terrorism to a simple message, “if you see something, say something.” That’s the right policy objective, but investigations of terrorist acts, like the recent one reported in San Bernardino CA indicates that while citizens “saw something” they did not “do something.” Similarly, I heard a pediatrician who had served on a state child fatality review team for over a decade note that the common, tragic theme in the unfortunate death of thousands of children was the presence of an adult who could have intervened and potentially stopped the fatality from occurring. The “family bubble” is a critical aspect of the dynamic of child sexual abuse and understanding its roots as well as developing strategies to overcome it are critical to prevention. The “family bubble” also extends to classrooms and other organizations serving young people as well. When teachers see a peer getting too close to student, or a coach paying inappropriate attention to a team member, too often the climate of an organization does not support taking any action until after provable abuse has taken place. If mandatory reporting is the only tool in the toolkit, by the time we need it, it’s too late.
This article began by stating that it is the actions of people that will make the difference. Here are actions that we as a nation collectively, as well as individually, can take to ensure each child has that great childhood that is so rightfully deserved:
- Establishing a national shared vision of great childhoods for all of America’s children;
- Advocating for a legislative focus on preventing child sexual abuse from ever occurring in the first place, emphasizing parent education and effective means to help parents understand actions to be taken to reduce the likelihood of their child being abused;
- Developing a clear concise message that states child sexual abuse is preventable and that focuses on specific actions that prevent or intervene before child sexual abuse occurs;
- Developing training curricula for community and parish programming that emphasizes the responsibility for child protection as a collective responsibility shared by the family, the community and every adult;
- Encouraging all institutions to have “best practice” polices in place to prevent child sexual abuse before it ever occurs;
- Supporting research on how to change the country’s social norm from the “family bubble” to a norm of the shared responsibility every citizen’s has for the stewardship of all children, without endangering a child or alienating a parent;
- Providing the services and opportunities for survivors to heal and collectively voice the importance child sexual abuse prevention as they continue their healing; and,
- Supporting parents to become the primary sexuality educators of their children, infusing Catholic values with age appropriate messages on anatomy, physiology, and safety. (See for example: Liz DeCarlo’s “Intimate Conversations: How to Talk to Your Kids about Sex” in U.S. Catholic October 2005 Volume 70, Number 10, pages 12-17.)
The Roman Catholic Church has taken great strides in fixing something that needed to be fixed. There are lessons that can serve all of us as well. As a nation, learning from these experiences we can not only make child sexual abuse unacceptable, but unthinkable.
Jim Hmurovich is a former Deputy Commissioner for the Indiana Department of Correction as well as a former State Welfare Director in Indiana. He has served as President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, for 10 years, retiring in April, 2016.