It’s been nearly three weeks since former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of child abuse-related charges. And it’s been a week since an investigation found that other officials at PSU either helped to cover up the abuse or ignored it.
Sandusky is now facing 442 years in prison.
Mark Fairchild, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Indiana Chapter, said there is a stigma with cases such as the one at PSU because it is “after the fact.” Oftentimes, he said, once a victim reaches adulthood, people feel as if there is nothing that can be done.
“This has clearly reversed that thinking,” Fairchild said. “Public wise, there were three chief elements that came back from this. One is that this was a very well-liked public persona, and it’s hard for them to visualize him being convicted for something so heinous. Several of the victims, by the time this had gone to trial, had gone onto adulthood. A lot of times there’s this thought that there’s some kind of statute or because I’d gone so long before speaking out, there’s nothing I can do to get real prosecution out of this. And then lastly you did have male victims and generally it’s harder (for the public) to see them as true victims, and on all three of those counts those stigmas didn’t seem to play a part at all in the way the jury judged Jerry Sandusky and that’s huge because all three of those stigmas were previously at-risk factors for not bothering to report in the first place. There were perceptions of not being taken seriously, and now they know they will be.”
Jennifer Hill of Prevent Child Abuse Hendricks County (PCAHC) said she was pleased that Sandusky was made an example of, in spite of the power he had wielded in the community.
“This was a big stand against child abuse,” she said of the verdict. “It let the public know that if you are accused of this and it goes to trial and you are convicted, it will be a lengthy term. This wasn’t just your ordinary, typical person ... not even your regular high school football coach. This was someone that was an icon and someone that for a long time did not get brought down. The fact that the public and possible victims might see that this person who was seen as a god is now going to prison for this, yes, it might give them some hope that they can get justice out of their situation.”
Tammi Jessup, executive director of Mental Health America of Hendricks County who also works with PCAHC, pointed out the residual effects that can come from this. She said it can be empowering to potential victims as well as an educational process that should come with reporting potential abuse.
“The change that we hope to see is that people will report, which a few people did, but they reported it and saw it still going on and didn’t do it further,” Jessup said. “If you’re going to protect children from abuse, you need to report until you see an investigation is going on or that you know it’s been looked into.”
Indiana has a law that requires those who potentially know of child abuse to report it further, different from Pennsylvania law that says that the potential abuse must at least be reported to a supervisor. Fairchild says that is unacceptable.
“Penn State clearly didn’t teach individual responsibility for those that should have reported this at all levels,” he said. “They instead had a system that suggested that if you saw this, there’s a person you mention it to and it’s gone, and if you’re in a certain position it’s not to be looking after it at all. They were going after state laws there, and regardless of what your state laws do and don’t enforce, institutions need to be making sure they bestow individual responsibility with all of their staff persons, which means if you go up the chain and there’s not a response, you feel morally obligated to do something to make sure it stops. You make the report directly, you contact law enforcement, child services, and you feel you have a duty to protect children. The system they put in place watered down quite a bit the feelings of individual responsibility.”
Fairchild said there is a national program called Stewards of Children, which is set up to help identify sexual abuse of children. It’s a two- to three-hour program that is available to any groups interested. He said NASW is happy to do presentations on it in an effort to educate.
“There’s a lot of good info on signs to look for, like if you’re a church youth leader you shouldn’t be meeting in rooms alone with people,” he said. “Doors should be open, windows in the rooms, and there should be an ability for someone to see what’s going on at all times.
“I think we’re seeing institutions getting curious about the fact that they might need to be doing better than they are. A lot more are questioning if they are going beyond the laws and wondering if they’re in a good place as far as policy goes, asking us to audit their policy and look at what’s going on through training like Stewards of Children.”
For more information on the Stewards of Children program, contact Jessup by e-mailing to email@example.com or calling 272-0027.