Stand up or stand by: What will you do?

To the Editor:

Once again, child sexual-abuse allegations have people everywhere shaking their heads in disbelief. Anger and frustration fill the airwaves, news columns, and blogs with questions like "How did this happen?" and "How did it go unreported for so long?"

"Stranger danger" has often been overemphasized by those who would keep children safe from predators. While studies have shown that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the age of 18, the sad truth is that in Vermont, as elsewhere, over 95 percent of victims know the offenders well. They are relatives, friends, neighbors, and, as alleged in the Penn State case, coaches.

Understanding what keeps child victims of sexual abuse silent is easy. They fear that revealing the abuse will bring harm to them or those they love, loss of affection, and punishment. Child sexual abuse is a crime that thrives in a climate of silence, secrecy, and shame. Fear is what offenders count on as they groom their victims.

What is not so easily explained is the silence of adult witnesses to such crimes. But if the problem is a lack of information about how to report such abuse and what will happen as a result, we must make sure that information is more widely known and understood.

When a report of child sexual abuse is made to the police or the Department for Children and Families, there is a partnership in place to ensure the abuse ends, that the child has a safe place to talk about what happened, and that the child and his or her family get all the services they need to start healing. The Vermont Children's Alliance, a nonprofit membership organization of child advocacy centers across our state that respond to allegations of abuse, is part of that partnership.

It is easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed in the face of the headlines. It is harder to turn our anger and frustration into positive action for victimized children.

Here is one positive action we can all agree on. Raise your right hand and repeat after me: "If I see, hear, suspect, or in any way become aware that a child is being abused, I will not keep silent. I will have the courage to help that child break free of the silence, secrecy, and shame that should never define a child's life."

Jennifer Poehlmann, executive director of the Vermont Children's Alliance

Richmond, Vt.

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