By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO
The notorious case of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of more than 150 women and girls he treated as a USA Gymnastics and Michigan State sports physician has brought the issue of sexual abuse once again to the forefront. As victim after victim testified and addressed him, it was clear that these women had been transformed. They were no longer victims but advocates determined to not only seek justice but to assure that such abuse stops.
Their pain and trauma is only too familiar to many of the children served by Hillsides. Like the victims of Nassar, their perpetrators were more likely than not to be someone familiar and with easy access. The physical violation is more painful because of the violated trust, which can leave a lasting impact emotionally. Revisiting such horrors further traumatizes the victims, however, like pulling off a bandage, the wound can finally be addressed and the healing process begins.
The greatest enablers of such abuse are silence and ignorance. Like Nassar, perpetrators often have a plausible reason for their actions to counter the questioning of their victims. Parents, guardians, and other responsible parties often accept such rationales, questioning rather the perception of the child. The first rule of thumb when a child reveals anything questionable is to take the revelation seriously. Any activity that leaves a child uneasy, let alone traumatized, must be acknowledged. Until an investigation can determine the facts, caution must rule and a child must be protected from further contact. Children should be taught to never second-guess their perception and feel comfortable to raise concerns and ask questions without fear. Silence, which only reinforces a feeling of shame, is the culprit regarding perpetuating abuse.
Important lessons can be learned in hindsight. One parent expressed that she should have taught her child what to reasonably expect in a physical examine to mitigate inappropriate actions in such a setting. Staying engaged, being informed, encouraging questions, showing sensitivity to reactions–all these help to create an environment supportive of a child and serve as a strong deterrent to abuse.
The other lesson learned is that systems need to stay focused on the children and assure their safety. In this case, we saw how the systems protected a perpetrator. The institutions bear some responsibility to ensure that all contact with children is safe. Bureaucracies driven by self-preservation can fail to protect those they purport to serve. The inability to protect children must be addressed; otherwise violence will be perpetuated.
The challenge is how to foster a safe environment without introducing unnecessary fears or suspicions into the impressionable lives of our children. Finding a balance is important, and the attention brought to this issue because of the Nassar case can serve to, once again, encourage us to not be complacent and instead be ever-vigilant.