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Diana Schunn: Learn from Penn State

  • Published Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, at 6:11 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, at 6:11 p.m.

It was about a year ago this month that criminal charges were filed against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty in July of 45 charges of sexual assault against 10 underage boys. The scandal that followed over the past year has opened the door to a community conversation about child sexual abuse.

The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County asks: What have we in Sedgwick County learned from the child sexual-abuse scandal that rocked Penn State? What do we do to prevent similar occurrences here?

There is no getting around the fact that in Sedgwick County, we have a serious problem regarding child sexual abuse. The local statistics are sobering.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, 2012, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit investigated 958 reports to law enforcement of suspected abuse. Of those cases, 47 percent were sexual-abuse allegations. Many of these cases involved the possibility of multiple victims.

From July 1 through Sept. 30, 457 Sedgwick County children were forensically interviewed as part of these investigations and either received or offered services related to these abuse concerns. Of those interviewed, 43 were interviewed regarding physical abuse, 10 were witnesses to violence, and 35 were interviewed regarding neglect or endangerment. However, 369 children were interviewed to determine if they were victims in the sexual-abuse investigations.

Those statistics should frighten and outrage all of us, because, sadly, they only hint at the real situation. As is the case in every other community, an estimated 85 percent of all child abuse goes unreported.

Let’s also be clear about who the abusers are. Of those 457 children, most identified a parent as the offender, followed by (in order) other people known to the child or family; a stepparent; an unknown person; other relatives; and a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend.

These offenders are people we work with, live near, worship with – people we know.

Penn State officials’ failure to act was callous and self-centered, but it also revealed the hesitation many of us might feel about responding when we suspect child abuse. It is troubling to believe that someone we know personally could sexually abuse a child, especially his or her own child. We forget, however, that abusers count on other adults failing to act on their suspicions.

When someone suspects child abuse, adults may hesitate and ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” This kind of thinking can stop that person from making a report that may be warranted. Instead we should ask ourselves, “What if I’m right?” Children count on a community of caring adults to help keep them safe.

It is also important to point out that law enforcement officers and the state social workers who investigate these cases have specialized training and years of experience in talking to children and potential suspects to determine the facts of any report of suspected child abuse. They valiantly work the front lines every day to protect children from harm. They deserve our support, and our help.

Kansas’ mandatory reporting law requires professionals whose jobs put them in frequent contact with children to report to law enforcement and the Kansas Department for Children and Families any suspicions of physical, mental or emotional abuse, neglect or sexual abuse. But all adults have a moral obligation to report suspected child abuse. Period.

That’s the mandate we need to follow. That’s the lesson I hope Penn State taught all of us.

Diana Schunn is executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County.

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