Adults Owe Child Sex Abuse Victims More Than Awareness

Policies like mandatory reporting are a starting point, not a solution.
Alex Livesey via Getty Images

When I was eight years old, a parent from the YMCA reported concerns about my swim coach to law enforcement. This parent’s suspicions were correct ― I was being sexually abused by a predatory coach. My perpetrator had rendered my family dependent on him after he moved into my childhood home under the guise of helping my newly divorced mother. He found numerous ways to isolate me, taking me to travel meets alone, providing nearly all of my transportation to swim practice and babysitting when my mom was at work. Acquaintances described him as “touchy-feely” and many remarked on how quickly he could gain the trust of children.

Unfortunately, my encounter at that time with law enforcement did not result in his arrest.

Decades later, I came to terms with this abuse and reported my perpetrator to the police. The charges, guilty plea and sentencing were all covered by news media. When I ran into people who knew me as a child, they invariably said, “We knew this guy wasn’t right.” Others even said, “I hate to say it, but I’m not surprised.”

Since my main coping mechanism was perfectionism, I did not fit the stereotype of an abuse victim. While my perpetrator’s behavior was suspicious to some, my own behavior provided an inadvertent cover for him.

I am not alone in my experience. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 683,000 children experienced some form of child maltreatment in 2015. Child sexual abuse is just one kind of maltreatment, and it happens with alarming frequency. Because of the stigma associated with child sexual abuse and children’s dependence on their perpetrators, this type of crime often goes unreported. It is estimated, though, that one in five girls and one in 20 boys are sexually abused. This kind of early childhood trauma has been documented to cause life-long mental and physical health problems for victims well into adulthood.

“Child victims of abuse are rarely in a position to advocate for themselves.”

Adult intervention is key to saving children from this kind of abuse and giving them a chance at a healthier, happier outcome. Mandated reporting laws support this type of intervention by requiring certain adults to tell the authorities about suspected child abuse. Some states also allow mandated reporters to be held civilly liable for damages resulting from failure to report. All states require teachers to be mandated reporters, but states vary in requirements for other professions.

On the federal level, the recent passage of the Safe Sport Act makes it a crime for representatives of youth sports organizations to ignore suspected abuse. Unfortunately, there are factors limiting the effectiveness of these laws.

There is no federal law requiring training for mandated reporters, so requirements vary by state and profession. Teachers in Virginia, for example, are only required to complete mandated reporter training when they first earn their license and when they renew it (generally every five years). Many trainings are web-based and can be completed without much focus.

USA Swimming recently launched a mobile platform for their Safe Sport training. Maggie Vail, a Safe Sport education specialist, said via SwimSwam, “The mobile-friendly platform allows us to cater to on-the-go members by taking Safe Sport courses and other valuable classes whenever their busy schedules allow.” Considering what is at stake, children deserve that the adults who are supposed to protect them receive training that is meaningful and not merely a check-the-box task.

Perfunctory training might be convenient for adults, but it can undermine the goal of mandated reporter laws. Researchers have found that teachers feel ill-equipped to identify abuse and are unaware of both the signs of it and the threshold for reporting. Research also shows that teachers tend not to report abuse when there are no bruises or other physical signs and avoid contacting authorities based on suspicions alone even though mandated reporting laws require them to do so.

Adults also often believe common, unhelpful myths about abuse that organizations should work more consistently to dispel. For example, adults I encountered as a child assumed that high achievement is incompatible with an abuse history. A consequence of this false belief is that children of color living in poverty are overrepresented in reports of suspected abuse.

Improved mandated reporter training, however, is useless if there are systemic, institutional flaws incompatible with the protection of children and prevention of abuse. Too often, organizations that serve children are focused on limiting perceived liability and protecting their image.

Revelations that USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics ignored hundreds of reports of child abuse in their ranks have sparked outrage. The twisted, self-serving culture that put so many swimmers and gymnasts at risk is not anomaly. It is pervasive, common even in our schools. A Government Accountability Office report from 2010 revealed that school officials often opt to retain abusive teachers or provide them positive references to work elsewhere in order to limit the expense of potential lawsuits. This practice is so common that it has a name ― “pass the trash.”

“All states require teachers to be mandated reporters, but states vary in requirements for other professions.”

These types of egregious failures happen despite the laws in place to deter mandated reporters from shirking their responsibility. But few convictions result from these laws, allowing mandated reporters ― and the organizations they represent ― to ignore abuse without consequence.

From 2004 to 2014 in Colorado, there were only 65 charges stemming from a mandated reporter failing to report. This is a nationwide problem. Representatives from schools and other organizations that serve children often get away with their failure to protect children, continuing their careers even though they have failed in their most basic responsibility.

Organizations will protect themselves above children until it is more inconvenient for them to ignore abuse than it is for them to address it. It is a move in the right direction to enforce and expand penalties for adults who enable predators by ignoring reports or suspicions of abuse. Likewise, organizations that avoid hiring personnel with a history of child abuse should also avoid hiring, retaining and promoting the allies of child abusers ― the adults who have covered up or ignored abuse.

Child victims of abuse are rarely in a position to advocate for themselves. Since their safety depends on adult intervention, it is absolutely critical that mandated reporters receive frequent training and accurate information to identify abuse. It is even more important that schools, youth sports organizations and other entities that serve children prioritize safety above self-interest.

Dani Bostick devotes most of her energy to disrupting the culture of shame and silence surrounding sexual abuse and assault.

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