What was unspeakable is now discussed. The unimaginable is now contemplated.
A year after former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on multiple child sexual abuse charges, the university and community have rebounded from the anguish, in large part, through promoting awareness of crimes against children.
Local people who work with abuse survivors say Sandusky’s trial and conviction — he’s serving essentially a life sentence — have sparked a collective effort to teach about recognizing and stopping child abuse. They see a cultural shift, progress that must continue.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” said Andrea Boyles, CEO of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau.
“This stuff is pretty unthinkable, so if you’ve never had to deal with it, you don’t have a lot of awareness. You don’t think about it because you don’t want to think about it. Like it or not, we’ve been forced as a community to think about it.”
Penn State, battered by allegations its top administrators helped cover up Sandusky’s crimes and lied to investigators, has provided one measure of success, training almost 8,000 employees and volunteers to be mandated reporters of child sexual abuse. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center helped facilitate the program.
“I think the past year has been a year of shock, reflection and learning for our community,” said Anne Ard, executive director of the center, in an email.
“I think the shock of what happened in our community, involving people we know, lasted quite a while but it wasn’t long before people began to turn to one another and talk about three things: How can we support those who have been victims of child sexual abuse? How can we come together? And how can we be a better community?”
Another example has come from the Stewards of Children workshops, an ongoing series derived from a national program created by the Darkness to Light organization.
Led by the YMCA of Centre County, the free 2 1/2-hour workshops have trained residents to spot and respond to signs of sexual abuse and pedophiliac behavior, protect children and “take personal responsibility in preventing this epidemic.” According to the YMCA, the topics covered include “the importance of talking about prevention of sexual abuse with children and other adults.”
At last count, about 1,300 people locally have gone through the training — a fifth of the way toward meeting the goal of teaching 5 percent of Centre County’s population, said county Judge Bradley Lunsford, a leader of the effort.Lunsford said the participation points to “substantial progress” but that Centre County is “just in the beginning stage of a comprehensive and meaningful community response.”
Noting the concerted efforts to fight autism and breast cancer, Lunsford said child abuse occurs more frequently than they do — 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys, sexually abused before they turn 18. The “epidemic” will generate the same support as other widespread afflictions only when “we change our culture,” he said.
“Children can be empowered with awareness and choice but the real responsibility for protecting children must be shouldered by adults,” Lunsford said in an email.
“Child sexual abuse is a collective community problem. It is caused by more than a perpetrator sexualizing a child. It is also caused by the fear and denial of adults who have awareness of abuse but choose not to act.”
Boyles hears evidence that mindsets are changing.She said she’s still getting calls from parents seeking advice about their children’s relationships with teachers, coaches and youth leaders. They wonder what’s normal and what’s not — a healthy concern, Boyles said.
“We weren’t asking those questions a year ago,” she said. “We were just accepting that everything is safe, and it’s not safe.”Mari Beth Lutes, the site director for the State College office of Life Counseling Services and Rehab after Work, said the public discussion of child sexual abuse during the Sandusky case helped reduce the stigma of being a child sexual abuse victim.
“That stigma has been addressed, saying to people it’s OK to come forward and talk about it,” said Lutes, a certified drug and alcohol addiction counselor.
For many of her mental health counselors’ clients, the year’s intense media coverage indirectly led to healing. Lutes said the news triggered depression or substance abuse, but during subsequent therapy, the clients uncovered the underlying reason: buried memories of being abused as children.
She’s encouraged that the Sandusky case spurred the community to act, and hopes it empowers more abused people to go from victims to survivors.
“When you’re a victim, it’s like you’ve lost your power,” Lutes said. “It’s the same with rape survivors. As long as they’re a victim, they have no power. By coming forward and standing up to the perpetrators, they’re able at some level to reclaim some of the power.”
State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham thinks the “community has pretty much risen to the occasion” and “is trying to evolve.” But she said there’s work to do.
“We’re going through the training, we’re educating ourselves, but we’re still a community that’s not comfortable with this,” she said.Goreham completed a Stewards of Children workshop and found it illuminating. So did the foreman of the Sandusky trial jury, who told her he was deeply affected by the scope of child sexual abuse, she said.
“He thought it was really important,” Goreham said. “It has really galvanized his desire to make a difference.”Going forward, she said, the community must remain vigilant and resist returning to complacency and blindness. She said the Sandusky case forced many to confront the sobering reality that it happened in idyllic Happy Valley, that children weren’t protected from a serial predator.“In the past we very proud of ourselves,” Goreham said. “And now, I think we’ve been humbled by this, and it’s opened our eyes that we’re not better than everybody else.”
Boyles said the community “can’t stop pressing forward.” She hopes to see parents continue communicating with their children, staying aware of possible trouble, asking questions such as wondering if a coach who texts one child does the same for everyone on a team.“We can’t stop the public awareness,” Boyles said. “We can’t afford to think that Jerry Sandusky was this anomaly and he’s locked up and it’s over. Because it’s not over. Kids aren’t always safe.”
A cross-community initiative aims to build more momentum. The Centre County Children’s Advocacy Center will be a place where trained professionals can interview abused children, reducing the trauma young victims experience from being interviewed many times in different places during an investigation.The idea for the center arose in the wake of the Sandusky case, when the Centre County Child Protection and Safety Collaborative was formed to educate the public about child sexual abuse.
Leaders included Lunsford and Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller, both of whom sit on the center’s board along with State College Police Chief Tom King, a retired State College school superintendent and two child psychologists, among other prominent residents.
“The question remains whether these efforts will someday equal the gravity of the issue or will we just rebury our heads in the sand,” Lunsford said. “Knowing this community as I do, our better days are ahead of us.”