It is all too often that one opens up a newspaper or sees a news story about a child who has become yet another victim of sexual abuse. A 2010 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau found that 9.2 percent of children are victims of sexual abuse. Research conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse. Research also indicates that children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.
The data is troubling and shocking. One only has to view the comments section of a news article about a child being victimized to realize that a good many members of public feel a sense of outrage at these crimes against young innocent victims. However, despite this outrage, abuse is widespread in our society.
There are several reasons why sexual abuse of children is prevalent. One could truly devote a lifetime to the study of this problem in depth. This column will touch upon only one important aspect of the problem, the lack of understanding and appreciation of the negative impact sexual abuse has on children and society by many in positions of trust and authority.
One aspect of the child abuse problem is the lack of seriousness with which some organizations that serve children have treated incidents of sexual abuse by members of their groups. One tragic example would be the Boy Scouts of America. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the Boy Scouts kept a secret record called “Ineligible Volunteer Files,” or less formally, the “perversion files” of 7,819 suspected abusers and 12,254 victims involved with their organizations between 1944 and 2016. (A portion of this list was made public by the Los Angeles Times and contains reports of alleged incidents here in East Idaho.)
While it is good that an organization keeps a record of volunteers who may be a danger to youth, what is concerning is the claim being made that the Boy Scouts may have failed, until recently, to report alleged incidents of abuse to law enforcement. It is clear however that the Boy Scouts of America fought for years in court to keep these files secret.
In fairness, most volunteers and leaders in Boy Scouts work hard to protect children and provide them a positive atmosphere. Also, Scouts is not the only volunteer organization to be accused of hiding from view child sexual abuse. Many other organizations, including churches, and other nonprofit organizations, have also come under scrutiny. When organizations fail to report sexual abuse, they not only hinder justice to the children who have been hurt, but also allow more youth to be put in harm’s way.
One may ask what fuels the rationalization to not act upon reports of abuse by contacting law enforcement. One answer may be that often leaders of the organization may feel the impact of abuse upon children is not that great, or at least not lasting. The good the organization does far outweighs the incidents of abuse, and protection of the organization’s reputation is the top priority.
However, this attitude is wrong. Sexual abuse’s impact can manifest itself through each generation. Many of those who are sexually abused as children become abusers themselves, creating a cycle of self-perpetuating harm. Those who suffer sexual abuse often suffer from ongoing and debilitating mental health issues. Mental health issues can include anxiety, depression and even suicide. Often those who are abused, especially in situations where it is not reported, do not obtain counseling. This lack of intervention makes the situation and outcomes worse.
However, denial is not limited to organizations. Denial exists in many families. All too often children report abuse to a trusted family member only to have what they shared ridiculed or minimized. In some families, the abuse is multi-generational and is all too often rationalized away with sentiments such as “it will just fade from their minds.” Simply put, children are often made to feel that sexual abuse is a normal part of growing up, or is not a big deal.
Ridicule of reports of abuse within families is not just limited to children. Adults in families who attempt to share incidents of sexual abuse by family members are often not listened to or are ostracized by family members. Many family members find it easier to dismiss the reports and those who make them than to deal with what is often an ongoing dangerous situation.
Even more tragic is that all too often the justice system fails to take sexual abuse of children seriously. All too often, sex offenders here in Idaho do not receive a prison sentence for their crimes. According to information retrieved from the Idaho State Judiciary’s Idaho Sentencing Information Database, often those convicted in Idaho of the crime of lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor under 16, the typical crime someone who has sexual abused a child is charged with, may only receive probation or be sentenced to a rider program with only prison time of a year or less.
According to the Idaho Sentencing Information Database, over the past five years here in Idaho 82 (17.4 percent) of the 470 individuals convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor under 16 received probation, an additional 163 (34.7 percent) were sent to a rider program of a year or less in prison. Given the lifetime impact of sexual abuse on the victims and society as a whole, stiffer sentences would seem to serve the interests of not only justice but as a needed deterrent as well.
There are no simple answers to the problem of sexual abuse. However, a good starting point is for individuals, families, organizations to understand the impact of the problem. Silence is not the solution. Reporting crimes to law enforcement is a key step to eliminating sexual abuse.
Dan Cravens lives in Blackfoot with his wife and three children.