An Alarming Epidemic

As incredulous as the sex abuse of minors in the Catholic Church was, and most recently the Penn State scandal, we are now engrossed in yet another inconceivable scenario of sexual abuse allegation in the LAUSD school system. As is true in the Catholic Church regarding priests, and indeed true also for athletic coaches, the vast majority of teachers are talented, hard working and very dedicated in spite of fiscal constraints and poor conditions. However, the lesson that can be learned from the sexual abuse scandals is that mixed loyalties, shame and a protective institutional culture can result in placing those entrusted in our care at considerable harm.
For all of us who care for children, there is only one driving concern: their safety. Each time I address new staff members I remind them that the children we serve have experienced more than their share of trauma. Therefore, more than anything else, whether in words or actions, we must do no harm to those already so vulnerable. Before loyalties to one another or institution, must be our loyalty to those we serve.
Recently at a staff meeting, Thomas Lee, director of Youth Moving On, a transitional housing and service for youth aging out of the foster care system, stated that the majority of the young women enrolling in the YMO program have been sexually abused. How can that be? Sexual abuse statistics indicate that one in four teenage girls are sexually abused by the time they reach 18, and teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 are 3.5 times more likely than the general public to be victims of sexual abuse. What other conclusion can we reach, but that we are experiencing an epidemic where our children and youth are being exploited at an alarming rate.
This may seem an exaggeration, but I’m afraid that our discomfort with this issue often makes us minimize the insidious and pervasive nature of sexual abuse. This discomfort, together with misplaced loyalties and a protective, if not indeed, secretive environment, only perpetuates a problem that long ago should have been uprooted out of our culture.
The path to prevention of sexual abuse must be set by a commitment by all adults regardless of their caregiver status to protect children. Age and culturally appropriate education of this topic to our children within the family and supported by our school, churches and all civic organizations is the only true remedy. Without making children frightened, we need to teach them from an early age the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Parents, teachers and all caregivers need to be able to recognize the signs of possible abuse and create a sense of safety and security that would allow children to report abusive activity. Early education and intervention is essential to mitigating this “epidemic.”
April is Sexual Abuse Awareness month and so it is important not only for us to confront this sad reality, but more importantly, resolve to do everything we can to keep our children safe.

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