by Barry Goldstein
The Pennsylvania Attorney General is now following-up by investigating some of the people who helped Jerry Sandusky continue to molest boys long after he should have been discovered and stopped. A recent news report described a meeting between the young man known at the Sandusky trial as victim #1, his mother and school officials. The boy had revealed Sandusky’s abuse to his school counselor. His mother demanded the school report Sandusky’s crimes against her son to the child protective authorities. The principal is being investigated because she attempted to discourage the mother from making a report. The mother told her she was going to the authorities to make the report. Despite her obligation as a mandated reporter, the principle called child protective to tell them to expect a visit from the mother and son, but not to take the allegations too seriously.
In recent times we have seen several stories, including Newtown where teachers and school administrators showed enormous courage and literally gave their lives to protect the children in their charge and here is a principal who allegedly undermined the efforts to protect a young boy from a criminal predator. It would be nice to think her behavior was the exception, but the reality is that when it comes to protecting children from sexual abuse, particularly when it is committed by someone they know, there is an awful pattern of adults giving more concern to the alleged rapists then to the children.
Is that an unfair characterization for the response to allegations of child sexual abuse in the United States and so many other countries? Consider that by the time children reach the age of 18, one-third of the girls and one-seventh of the boys have been sexually assaulted. Although mothers rarely make deliberately false allegations of sexual abuse, in 85% of cases in which mothers raise these concerns, the alleged abuser is given custody. This means courts are sending an awful lot of children to live with their rapists. The only thing worse than raising these grizzly statistics would be for someone to say it is inevitable and we do not have the ability to do a better job protecting children.
Certainly disgusting predators like Jerry Sandusky are responsible for their crimes. At the same time this principal and so many officials at Penn State could have acted differently and stopped him sooner. But again this is more than a problem caused by a few uncaring individuals. As a society we have long tolerated and helped keep secret the widespread victimization of our children. Attitudes, beliefs and tolerance of sexism make children more vulnerable. The solution for protecting these precious children lies as close as the nearest mirror. If the level of child sexual abuse crimes was believed and considered intolerable, we could create better responses that would drastically reduce these crimes. The principal had an opportunity to protect not only the boy in her school but other boys who later became victims of Sandusky. As tempting as it is to criticize her actions and inactions, we have no authority to do so until we do what she failed to do—work to prevent more children from being victimized by the predators among us.
The Enormous Life Long Harm of Sexual Abuse
In my first book, SCARED TO LEAVE AFRAID TO STAY, I told the story about a client who was sexually abused between the ages of 3 and 8 by her brother. He would spank her and touch her during his abuse. For many years she felt guilty because some parts of what her brother did were physically pleasurable. When the brother’s abuse was discovered, he was removed from the home, but she never received therapy because her parents did not believe in it. Much later, as an adult and in a marriage with an abuser she found a good therapist. One day the therapist brought out an empty chair and told our client to pretend the chair was the three-year-old girl. “Tell the girl what she did wrong,” the therapist asked the client. In that moment, for the first time she realized it wasn’t her fault.
A few months ago I wrote an article about the health impact of domestic violence and child abuse. I discussed a wonderful book by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. Early in the book she was discussing how these traumas shorten children’s lives and speaking of the many common illnesses caused or worsened by these traumas. And then she mentioned diabetes—-and I froze.
My mother died just a few years ago at age 84 of complications from diabetes. The last several years of her life were compromised by her diabetes and her need for dialysis. It was years after I was an adult and had started my work in the domestic violence movement that I learned that her uncle had touched her inappropriately when she was a teenager. I thought about this as I read the book. I will never know, but it is possible she would still be alive if my “great”-uncle had never abused her. We cannot know how these traumas impact an individual, but we do know that many wonderful people like my mom live shorter and more painful lives because of society’s tolerance of domestic violence, child abuse and other traumas.
Predators do not fit the kind of stereotypes that would make them easily identifiable. I can remember as a kid going out on this uncle’s boat and having a wonderful time. There was never any suggestion he had done anything so harmful. He was also a popular science teacher. I don’t know if he ever abused any of the students, but he did touch other girls in our family. I believe it is long past time for society to start taking these crimes far more seriously.
The long-term health impact from sexual abuse can occur in many different ways: The trauma can cause depression, PTSD and other mental health problems which in turn can lead to suicide; Stress, inflammation, eating and sleeping disorders can cause many of the most debilitating and fatal diseases; The violation of trust makes it harder to create and maintain good relationships; The impact of the assault may undermine the ability to concentrate in school and get an education needed to provide needed resources; Many victims run away from home creating additional dangers and vulnerabilities. Survivors often make bad decisions resulting in risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, crime, prostitution, relationships with abusive men and other self-destructive behaviors that undermine their health. These and other problematic circumstances combine to multiply the risks and harms.
Societal attitudes towards rape tend to reinforce guilt and embarrassment. In many cases survivors are blamed for the abuser’s actions. In response to most other crimes, victims can expect support and assistance, but the experience of rape and sexual abuse is often hidden out of concern for negative responses. In most cases where the offender is a friend or relative there is a danger of additional assaults or retaliation if the attack is revealed. And as many of the Penn State victims stated when asked why they didn’t report it sooner, there is good reason in our society to fear they will not be believed.
The fact that rape and other forms of sexual abuse are enormously harmful is not new or surprising. Still, the new medical and other research that demonstrates the enormity of the harm to victims is important. This research should create an urgency to prevent these crimes and help the children heal. There are many things we can do to salvage lives, but it must become safe to come forward and reveal his abuse and the resources must be in place to provide the needed treatment and therapy. Survivors should expect non-judgmental emotional support so they are willing to reveal what he did to them and seek the help they need.
The Myth about False Allegations
One of the major factors in the decision by District Attorney Bill Delahunt to develop a series of best practices that led to creation of the Quincy Model was a finding that almost every prisoner in a nearby high security prison had a childhood history of witnessing domestic violence or suffering sexual abuse. He realized that by protecting the community from these crimes he could reduce all crimes. He created an office to focus on child sexual abuse crimes. Delahunt was aware that many people tended to disbelieve allegations of incest, but he correctly understood most complaints were true. Aggressive prosecution of incest and other child sexual abuse crimes contributed to the substantial reduction in domestic violence and other crimes in Norfolk County.
The myth about false allegations of incest has a long history. Sigmund Freud originally published a study based on his work with incest victims that confirmed its frequency. Strong opposition from parts of society and particularly those who were committing these crimes led him to concoct a theory that the complaints were based on dreams and fantasies and were almost always false.
More recently organized efforts by sexual abusers and the professionals earning money by helping to defend them led to the promotion of theories designed to dispute child sexual abuse allegations. This included allegations that were based on therapy and recovered memory as well as the custody based Parental Alienation Syndrome. As with any myth, there has to be a kernel of truth to sustain it. There have been false allegations and convictions, and these are rightfully condemned, but are rare. Far more common are true allegations that are disbelieved.
Significantly child sexual abuse is a crime and so tends to be judged based on the high standard of proof required for a criminal conviction. This is based on our values that include not wanting innocent people to be convicted and jailed. This is why proof is required beyond a reasonable doubt which is a very high standard of proof. Child sexual abuse is particularly hard to prove because many types of abuse do not leave physical evidence or the evidence may no longer be available by the time the child reveals the crime. Many judges and juries expect strong physical evidence before they will believe child sexual abuse allegations and sometimes even this strong evidence is not enough.
It is indeed a horrible experience to be accused of sexual abuse and I understand the high standard of proof needed to avoid mistaken convictions. There is no justification, however to use this same high standard of proof when the issue is protecting the health and safety of children rather than sending someone to prison. Nevertheless we have seen many cases in which the decision of prosecutors not to bring charges (which would have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt) is routinely used by child protective agencies and custody courts as proof the allegations are false. Even when this non-probative information is not cited, the extreme skepticism many professionals have towards incest allegations creates a huge obstacle that prevents children from being protected. The catastrophic consequences of exposing children to sexual abuse should require courts to err on the side of protecting the health and safety of children rather than protecting abusers.
The fact is that pursuing allegations of sexual abuse are extremely painful and embarrassing for the child and the safe parent. Children do lie about many things but rarely abuse. This is confirmed by studies that confirm deliberately false allegations made by mothers occur less than 2% of the time in contested custody cases. Nevertheless the Saunders’ study found that inadequately trained court professionals tend to believe the myth that mothers frequently pressure children to make false charges. The frequency that child sexual abuse allegations are disbelieved demonstrates both the difficulty in proving incest and the high percentage of evaluators and other court professionals attempting to handle cases without the specific training they need.
Perhaps the most damning demonstration of society’s tolerance for incest is the discrimination against children victimized by sexual abusers they know. When the alleged perpetrator is a stranger, the investigation is led by law enforcement and the purpose is to gather evidence to prosecute the rapist. The alleged offender is quickly and aggressively questioned and they seek to obtain agreement for a lie detector test. In other words they take the allegations seriously and do everything possible to protect the child.
When the alleged predator is someone the child knows, particularly a family member, the approach is completely different. The investigation is led by a social worker. They are required to provide notice to the parents which provides the opportunity for the molester to destroy evidence and silence the child. There is a delay in interviewing the child and the abuser. The purpose of the investigation is to reunify the parent and child and little effort is made to gather evidence. If the case later leads to a custody dispute, this lack of evidence caused by the substandard investigation is treated as proof the allegations are deliberately false.
When the media actively covers a story about child sexual abuse it is usually about a pretty blond girl who has been raped or kidnapped by a stranger. This is one of the reasons that the stereotypical sexual predator is some stranger lurking to pick up children. The reality is that the large majority of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the victim knows. Accordingly, practices that focus mainly on strangers leave most child victims vulnerable and unprotected. The discriminatory response to child sexual abuse is based on these false stereotypes.
Closely connected to this stereotype is the common but unstated assumption that a man who is successful in other parts of his life could not be doing something so distasteful. This probably influenced the principal who knew Jerry Sandusky as a successful college football coach and founder of an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged children. She probably didn’t consider that predators often engage in activities that will bring them close to vulnerable children.
The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church was similarly abetted by this popular assumption. Dedicated priests devoting their lives to prayer and God would not abuse children. Certainly the church administrators would not tolerate priests who violated the commandments and broke the trust placed in them. This made it hard to believe the allegations of abuse by priests could be both true and as widespread as they turned out to be. Violations by Boy Scout leaders similarly tended to be disbelieved because the men involved were considered role models and leaders in the community.
These common mistakes have contributed to the failure of custody courts to believe true allegations of child sexual abuse and to protect the children. Many evaluators and other court professionals believe they can determine the truth about abuse allegations from observing the parties. They often fail to consider that an abuser acts very differently with the court professionals and indeed just about everyone else than he acts in the privacy of his home. In many cases evaluators and others have referenced glowing testimonials from friends and family as if it were proof the allegations could not be true. These witnesses are usually telling the truth, but they have no information about how he treats the mother and children in private.
At the same time, mothers may be angry, emotional and upset from the long history of their partner’s abuse and concern the court will not protect their children. The Saunders’ study found that court professionals pay far too much attention to mother’s anger and emotion; all out of proportion to what it says about her parenting. The Batterer as Parent and other experts have found that the best source of information about a father’s abuse and his likely future behavior is the mother.
Abused women pay close attention to their partners’ body language, tone of voice, choice of words and other clues that can provide early warning of his potential danger. This allows the mothers to attempt to diffuse the situation, usually by agreeing to what he wants, leave the home, call for help or shield the children, usually with her body in order to try to survive. Court professionals who rarely have an understanding of domestic violence dynamics just assume the mother is biased and fail to consider their best source of information. In many cases, this bias and ignorance has directly led to child murders after the court disbelieved the mother and provided the father with the access to the children he needed to kill them.
The fathers the courts see in custody cases do not look like stereotypical child molesters. Neither did Jerry Sandusky, the Catholic priests or the Boy Scout leaders who repeatedly violated the children in their trust. Trained professionals need to do a better job of avoiding manipulation by abusers who have long practice in fooling people.
The High Cost of Silence
Child sexual abuse is an unpleasant, painful and embarrassing topic, but our silence only makes it easier for the bad guys. The research about the enormous health consequences of tolerating child abuse and the unconscionable prevalence of these life-altering crimes demands that good people speak up and demand responses that will effectively protect our children.
In recent years we have seen effective “good-touch-bad-touch” programs that make young children aware of the dangers. Predators use many effective tactics to scare and silence children. This makes it particularly important to do everything possible to encourage children to report abuse or anything that makes them uncomfortable.
We have seen in the Sandusky case, Catholic Church and many custody cases how the practice of disbelieving children’s complaints discourages victims from revealing his abuse and allows these scandals to continue much longer. The use of these flawed practices encourages abusers because they correctly expect to get away with most of their crimes. Approaches that treat incest as a private family matter increase the risk to children.
Community silence is also devastating to our children. When we consider how devastating child sexual abuse is to the victim and the community it should be shocking to see the difficulty in obtaining laws and practices designed to protect children. Many states have had laws or practices that treat incest as less of a crime than assaults by strangers. Attempts to strengthen enforcement and eliminate incest exemptions have not had the near unanimous support they deserve. Campaigns to reduce or eliminate statute of limitation obstacles to victims suing their abusers have met significant opposition and have not always succeeded. This is important because children may have lost the memory of the abuse, as a defense mechanism for survival, or continue to face threats or risks for revealing the abuse. In some cases survivors have faced retaliation when they complain about their abuser.
This silence has been particularly deafening in response to the widespread failure of the custody courts to protect child sexual abuse victims. The media has failed to expose this scandal. The legislatures have failed to pass laws that require courts to make the safety of children their first priority. Professional organizations have failed and refused to discipline members who make a living ruining children’s lives by protecting the predators. Many judges have retaliated against protective mothers and professionals who criticized them for placing children in danger. And the public has stood by while the children’s lives are ruined and they are subjected to unspeakable pain and cruelty.
Child Sexual Abuse and Abortion
I personally believe that the government has no business telling women what to do with their bodies and it is particularly offensive for male officials to interfere with the medical needs and most fundamental privacy rights of women. At the same time I have many friends who sincerely believe that abortion is wrong and I respect their dedication. I am touching this issue, which I usually would not discuss in an article like this because of some interesting findings in the ACES and related research. The studies find that girls who are sexually abused are more likely to have abortions. This is not only because they might want to abort a baby conceived from rape, but the impact of sexual abuse often leads survivors to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
We have seen politicians focus on rare types of abortions and spend enormous attention and money seeking to ban these abortions despite the impact on the health and privacy of women. The research concerning the connection between child sexual abuse and abortion means that those who wish to prevent abortions could create laws and practices that would result in a larger reduction of abortions without interfering with the privacy of girls and women. Indeed, encouraging best practices to prevent rape and molestation of girls will make the lives of all girls and women much better. It should be a rare instance in which both sides of the abortion debate could agree. Once this connection becomes better known, the response of politicians and those who are working to prevent abortions will demonstrate the sincerity of their beliefs. How could they fail to take advantage of this research to prevent abortions by preventing child sexual abuse? For those who sincerely oppose abortion, protecting girls from incest and sexual assault should become a major priority.
Custody Courts Still Protect Sexual Predators
When mothers raise concerns about possible child sexual abuse during a custody case they frequently face responses from their attorneys refusing to present the evidence or strongly discouraging the moms from voicing their concerns and protecting their children. The attorneys’ motives range from disbelieving the allegation or not wanting to present it to concerns about the sufficiency of the evidence and the likelihood the judge will deny the allegations and punish the mother for making them. With few exceptions, these attorneys are not aware of the research that 85% of these allegations result in custody for the alleged abuser. Rather this response is based on their experience that judges generally do not want to hear about child sexual abuse and often respond in ways that hurt the mother and children. In some cases the lawyer is concerned the judge will be angry at them for presenting the information. This, of course, constitutes a conflict of interest as the attorney is undermining the client’s case to protect their personal and professional interests, but it is not the kind of ethics violation that courts or bar associations tend to take seriously.
This common response is an accurate reflection of the hostile reaction custody courts make to requests that they protect children from sexual abuse. Some of this reaction is caused by many years of listening to evaluators who are part of the cottage industry that makes large incomes supporting abusive fathers. Some of this reaction is caused by the frequent lack of training or research to inform decisions about domestic violence and child abuse. The bogus Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), based not on any research but rather a belief system by Richard Gardner that included many public statements that sex between adults and children can be acceptable. At the heart of the reaction that mostly fails to protect children is reliance on the myth that mothers frequently make false allegations of abuse.
While courts claim that protecting children is their highest priority, the results and their standard responses tell a very different story. I appreciate that there are many reasons for the courts’ failure, just as there are reasons for the frequency children in this society are subjected to sexual abuse. Nevertheless, if this was a genuine priority the responses would be very different and children would be much safer. It should not take the ACES study about the enormity of harm caused by child abuse, but if that is what it takes, let’s use it to protect the children.
Domestic violence experts often speak about the importance of context in understanding domestic violence cases. This is one of the many failures in the custody court system that tends to look at each issue and incident separately. The courts also look at each case separately and assume based on stare decisis that once a decision is made it must be correct. In many cases they won’t even consider new evidence which taken together with the previous evidence demonstrates the pattern of abuse. If custody court officials would look at the pattern of courts giving sexual predators access to the children and the research about how rare it is for mothers to make false allegations it would be easy to see that most of these decisions are catastrophically wrong.
Unfortunately we have seen extreme defensiveness and too often retaliation when concerns are raised that judges mishandled a case. This is particularly true in sexual abuse cases where it would be so distasteful for judges to realize they are responsible for the children being subjected to such vile behavior. We need the courts to be open to the new research, better practices and the need to rely only on professionals who have genuine expertise specifically about child sexual abuse.
When the scandals in the Catholic Church and Penn State finally broke, the public was rightfully outraged that so many children were left unprotected for so long. It was fair to blame the perpetrators and the administrators who failed to do their job and make protection of children the first priority. Many of us hoped that the exposure of these scandals would encourage reforms in the custody courts’ response to child sexual abuse because the same flawed practices and responses are involved. Thus far we have been disappointed.
Just as it would be helpful to custody courts to look for the patterns in abuse cases, the same is true for society’s failure to protect children from sexual predators, particularly close friends and family. As I mentioned earlier, by the time they reach the age of 18, one-third of the girls and one-seventh of the boys have been sexually abused. This presents an unmistakable pattern of society’s failure to protect its children.
This is a society that claims to treat children as precious. If a consumer product kills or injures a few children, it is big news, the product is recalled and the media is all over the story. So why do we continue to tolerate the much more widespread, life-altering trauma caused by sexual abuse? For this we must look in the mirror.
This is a topic we are uncomfortable discussing. Many people wish to disbelieve the allegations even though children rarely lie about abuse. How could respected judges, lawyers and psychologists even consider forcing children to live with their rapists? It is much easier to blame the mother for being vindictive. Is it any less shocking that respected priests could molest children and leading administrators would cover it up rather than making children’s safety the first priority? There came a point where the church denials and minimizations were overwhelmed by the evidence and huge number of children proven to be victims.
The public and the parishioners remained silent for far too long. We have reached the point with the custody courts that the research and evidence is so overwhelming that only shutting our eyes and closing our ears to the desperate pleas for help from the children and their mothers can permit the latest scandal to continue. It is time for the media to start doing their job of exposing court malfeasance and misfeasance. It is time for the courts to start discussing this problem with more than the usual suspects who have failed the courts and often make large incomes by doing so. Court administrators need to look at the research including the Saunders’ study and the ACES medical findings. Most of all it is time for all of us to look in the mirror and tell our children what we are doing to make them safe.