A message from Dr. Michele Nealon-Woods, President, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
By now, we have all seen the headlines on the allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State. As many commentators have observed, amidst all of the deeply disturbing allegations, the dismissal of Joe Paterno and subsequent chaos, there are some teachable moments.
Many of us have spent our careers working with children and families in distress, and statistically speaking, a significant number of those children have been sexually abused. Indeed, while studies vary and child abuse is generally under-reported, recent data suggests that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls have been sexually abused before the age of 18. We know that victims of abuse experience significant, often long-term trauma, and yet many go untreated, in part because the abuse has never been reported.
Medical doctors, mental health professionals, teachers, childcare providers and clergy are generally among the many professionals who are legally mandated to report suspected abuse, although requirements vary by state. As engaged professionals, however, our job goes beyond treatment and reporting. First, it is critical that we work to ensure that every adult knows and understands the warning signs of abuse. Second, putting aside motives to deliberately prevent reporting or investigation generally ascribed to alleged bad actors, we must address the issues that prevent not only victims but other “witnesses” from appropriate reporting. After all, knowing the signs of abuse means nothing if we cannot consciously acknowledge them or choose to ignore them.
Dr. Steve Brown, the director of the Traumatic Stress Institute in Connecticut, discussed the barriers to reporting in a recent article. A part of the problem, of course, is that 90% of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they know—which means that the perpetrator is often someone other adults know and trust. Deborah Rice, executive director of Stop it Now, an organization aimed at preventing child sexual abuse, recently noted that"[t]hese (offenders) are not milling around looking like monsters. They are like all of us, they do a lot of good things, people love them, and then they have this other behavior that hurts people.”
One barrier to reporting, then, results from the cognitive dissonance we experience when we see something that so contradicts our perception of a person—especially someone we know and like. We don’t want to believe it, and it’s not unusual to consciously or unconsciously choose to deny what we see or in some way rationalize the behavior.
Fear and stigma are also obstacles to reporting. The stigma around sexual abuse impedes not only a victim’s willingness to report, but also that of witnesses. Sexuality, even sexual violence, is considered a private matter—particularly if it means reporting sexual violence within your or someone else’s family. Fear of retribution or making things worse for the victim are other reasons articulated for not reporting.
Regardless of legal mandate, as responsible members of society we all have a duty to report. But as psychologists, we also have an ongoing duty to work to reduce the barriers to reporting. That means not only making sure that adults know the signs of sexual abuse, but that they feel safe enough to report it. Actively developing and participating in a candid national dialogue about what sex abuse is, who the perpetrators are, and the impact of it on victims is the first step to reducing stigma. Working with our community partners, we can also help ensure the widespread dissemination of accurate information about what, how and where to report sexual abuse.
We can continue to vilify those who allegedly failed to report in this case, or we can learn from it and get on with the process of educating the nation-- so tomorrow at least one more individual will have the courage and the tools to step up and save a child.