Protecting the Children is Everyone’s Job, And Not Just at Penn State

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We adults are supposed to be the responsible ones. We have a duty to protect those who are dependent upon us for their welfare. Ensuring the safety of our children is a duty we all share.

By now many of us have become familiar with the news coming out of Penn State University that a former assistant football coach there and one-time heir apparent to the iconic head coach Joe Paterno is alleged to have been using his position, his stature, and even his service foundation as vehicles to gain access to young boys he eventually sexually molested. It’s a sad, ugly, but all too familiar story. The unspeakable damage inflicted upon the innocent child victims is horrific enough. But an additional tragedy is the dramatic failure of a great institution and those charged with guiding, leading, and protecting the young persons in their care, to take the kind of action that might have prevented many of the assaults. Credible evidence of a pattern of victimization emerged as early as 13 years ago and came to light on at least three separate occasions — but those in power appear to have concerned themselves more with institutional status, finances, and public image than the welfare of children.

Lawyers will be debating just how much duty under the law the various parties involved had to report what they knew to the police. But regardless of whether a clear legal obligation existed, the moral failures in this case are striking, and unfortunately, all too commonplace.

Throughout history, children have been abused, exploited, and unprotected. And while most of us would like to think that we have evolved socially to a much better place, the reality is that children across the globe still work in sweat shops, are abducted from their families and sold into slavery, taught to kill to survive, beaten, forced into prostitution, and emotionally and sexually abused. The UNESCO research arm estimates in its 2010 Annual Report that as many as one quarter of the women in the developing world were child brides. It also estimates that worldwide over 40% of children with potential access to pre-primary education don’t receive it. Hunger statistics for many of the world’s children are improving, but are still alarming, especially in strife-torn regions.

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There is perhaps no greater duty for any adult than to provide for the needs of, and most especially to protect, children. The younger the child, the more vulnerable and dependent they are on the adults around them. And because they often lack the skills to fully comprehend their circumstances and communicate their fears or concerns to others, it’s essential that the adults around them make it their business to ensure their welfare.

There is perhaps no greater loss than the loss of innocence. Some experiences are so traumatic and damaging that it’s simply impossible for any child victim to fully recover. I have seen this first hand many times, and it’s almost impossible to describe the level of sorrow I have felt at times for those whose innocence was stolen and whose lives and personal development were affected. Children who have suffered various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse, can have extraordinary difficulty developing a healthy sense of self. They also have a greater risk for problems with substance misuse, self-damaging behaviors, and troubled relationships.

UNESCO is just one of many agencies dedicated to improving the lives of children throughout the world. Perhaps the biggest task of any such organization is to change prevailing attitudes among adults about the responsibilities we all share with respect to the protection of our children. When all is said and done, it was the insensitivity to the damage done to young innocent souls that allowed those in positions of responsibility at Penn State to do as little as they did when they had reason to believe that three different children had been abused. They paid little heed to the nature of the harm done, to a likely pattern of continued victimization, and to the likely impact on the victims. Instead, they concerned themselves with how they, their program, their institution, and their various personal agendas might be impaired. It’s that kind of mindset and culture we must change if the most innocent and vulnerable among us are ever to be safe.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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