Responses to the Sandusky Verdict and Keeping Youth SAFE

Many of us who work professionally with youth have been following the reports of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, from the initial accusations to the arrest, then trial, and now conviction on most counts. In addition to this story, there is the series of articles about a culture of abuse at a private prep school in Manhattan and, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve also seen several other significant reports of adults in trusted positions who have sexually abused youth. While we’re encouraged in seeing an increased awareness about this issue (as these abuses happen far more often than most people think or hear about), we are deeply saddened that there continues to be more incidents.

Child sexual abuse cases like these often prompt responses similar to, “It shouldn’t have happened!” or “How could these people have had access to vulnerable youth?” or “Why wasn’t anyone noticing what was going on?” For many people who don’t have exposure to abused or neglected youth or know someone who has had this experience, it is natural to be upset even hearing the words used to describe such incidents. Indeed, it can be difficult to even consider that another person is capable of hurting a child this way. Even though it is an extremely uncomfortable topic that generates anxiety and fear, the potential danger for youth is too great for us not to talk about it.

Friends for Youth has been the leader in the youth mentoring field in developing guidelines for programs to implement in order to only select volunteer mentors who are safe. Based on research over the years to produce our resource SAFE(Screening Applicants for Effectiveness): Guidelines to Prevent ChildMolestation in Mentoring and Youth-Serving Organizations  – and more recently for our chapter to be included in the new Handbook on Youth Mentoring, available by the end of this year – we help organizations do better by offering recommendations on the screening and monitoring process and developing policies and procedures to ensure compliance.

In recent trainings with mentoring professionals, I’ve been able to discuss very realistic examples to illustrate our recommendations, including
  • Perpetrators often become so well known and liked in a community that family, friends, and acquaintances will go to great lengths to defend them
  • By relying solely on a criminal history background check, programs aren’t adequately doing their job of ensuring their volunteers are safe
  • Perpetrators will seek many opportunities to have access with children they wish to harm, including volunteer and charitable work
  • Most people don’t want to think anyone else is capable of sexually abusing a child, so they often “discount” what they see and hear
  • Often, though, after the abuse has been publicized, these same people reflect back on what they saw or heard and realize that they did notice something that made them uncomfortable

After a similar event from several years ago, Kenneth Lanning, a retired FBI behavior analyst who studied child molesters, said the perpetrator showed indicators of concern, but “the indicators are things the average person is not trained to recognize.” Through SAFE, we educate program staff about those indicators and recommend specific tools and processes to implement in order to spot them.

If you are feeling helpless, hopeless, or discouraged by the state of programs designed to support youth and help them thrive, know that you can do something. We recommend
  • Asking if other programs that work with children in your community are effectively screening volunteers, both adults and other youth (check out this list of questions for parents from Stop It Now!)
  • Letting them know about our SAFE training and resources that we provide to other youth-serving organizations
  • Donating to our SAFE 2012 Campaign in order to help us raise funds to produce a new edition of SAFE that will include more recent recommendations and a trainer’s guide, allowing us to reach more youth-serving programs than ever

Thank you for doing all you can to support youth by keeping them safe and helping them thrive!


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