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How Do We Stop Child Sex Abuse? What Penn State Can Learn From Prisons

"When people have unchecked power, bad things happen. When predators have unchecked power, horrendous things happen."


Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's career came to a close yesterday as a result of charges that his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, sexually abused at least eight boys in his care—some of them in the Penn State showers. Paterno, who was informed by a witness that Sandusky had anally raped a 10-year-old child in his locker room in 2002, reported the incident to his superiors, but not to law enforcement. Paterno is said to have continued to allow Sandusky to access the football facilities he had allegedly used to carry out his decades-long abuse of children.

When the news of Paterno's termination hit campus, students rioted. "Some blew vuvuzelas, others air horns. One young man sounded reveille on a trumpet. Four girls in heels danced on the roof of a parked sport utility vehicle and dented it when they fell after a group of men shook the vehicle," The New York Times reported. "A few, like Justin Muir, 20, a junior studying hotel and restaurant management, threw rolls of toilet paper into the trees. 'It’s not fair,' Mr. Muir said, hurling a white ribbon."


There are other things in life that aren't exactly fair—like the systematic sexual abuse of children—but this is Penn State football. Paterno's ultimate inaction, and the student response to his termination, points to a priority problem at Penn State that runs deeper than Sandusky himself. As it attempts to pick up the pieces, Penn State can learn from another institution with an ugly history of hierarchical sexual abuse: the American prison system.

Sandusky's alleged abuse is "an absolutely disgraceful situation, but sadly it's not that surprising to me," says Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International. "There are some obvious parallels between what's happening at Penn State and what I hear about every day from juvenile detention facilities."

In juvenile detention centers across the United States, one in eight detained children experience abuse in any given year—12 percent of all kids in juvenile detention. Eighty percent of them are victimized by a member of the facility's staff. "In detention facilities, there are extreme power differentials between staff and detainees, and very little oversight," Stannow says. "When people have unchecked power, bad things happen. When predators have unchecked power, horrendous things happen."
In recent years, a serious body of work has emerged to tackle the problem of prison rape. In 2003, President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, establishing a national commission surrounding the issue, creating a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse in facilities, increasing staff training to prevent and respond to that abuse, and instituting surveillance standards to facilitate external monitoring of prisons. Public universities and child-centered nonprofits are different institutional structures than prisons—for one thing, the government has much less control over them—but the efforts to stop systematic abuse within our nation's prisons provides several lessons for the outside world.
Four lessons Penn State—and institutions like it—can learn from prisons:

Recognize potential victims. In an essay in the Chicago Tribune, Michele Weldon argues that youth sports organizations need to make better efforts to identify predators within their power structures. Institutions must also make an effort to identify the children most at risk of becoming their victims. "Victimized detainees tend to be the most vulnerable, and the least likely ever to talk about what happened," Stannow says of the detention context. "So you see a lot of first-time prisoners, prisoners who may seem especially vulnerable and afraid, those lacking street smarts, gay and transgender prisoners, and youth prisoners targeted for abuse. Youth are abused much more often than adult prisoners, which paints a pretty horrific picture."

Obviously, a huge power differential exists between children and adults. But that structure is compounded when children lack a strong external family support structure, and predators know it. Sandusky's charity, The Second Mile, targeted at-risk and underprivileged boys, a cover Sandusky allegedly used to repeatedly victimize them. These were "vulnerable children who were unlikely to be able to go home to a stable family environment and talk about what happened," Stannow says. "There is a deliberate targeting going on here, a planned targeting of the most vulnerable children."

Take a close look at hierarchical power structures. In detention facilities, "most corrections staff want to do the right thing," says Stannow. "At the same time, it’s definitely the case that people who like the idea of exerting power over others are attracted to positions where they can have that power... Survivors of rape in prison describe their perpetrators boasting about the incredible power it gives them over others."

When allegations of child sexual abuse arise, the incidents are often explained away as the work of one predator in an otherwise good institution. But any institution that employs a hierarchical power structure opens up the possibility for the abuse of that power, and those institutions need to recognize their responsibility in mitigating that threat. That duty can become compromised when the most powerful become too invested in protecting their jobs, friends, and football legacies to adequately address serious crimes—and less-powerful employees defer to their authority. At Penn State, employees both below and above Sandusky in the chain of command failed to take adequate action. "Highly hierarchical systems, like prisons, jails, and youth detention facilities tend to be governed by a tremendous code of silence, an enormous fear of reporting a colleague," Stannow says. "In these settings, reporting a colleague is perceived as disloyal, when in fact each corrections official has an absolute obligation to do so."

Dismantle the sexual abuse bureaucracy. Pennsylvania police commissioner Frank Noonan commended Paterno for reporting Sandusky to authorities, but questioned "the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child," "I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you're a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us."

Instead, Paterno and others reported the alleged incidents to superiors, then washed their hands of their obligations. The chain of reporting was deliberately severed before it reached the law enforcement level, a structural breakdown that could have been avoided with one phone call. "This is clearly a situation where you need to call the police," Stannow says. "But in some settings, there is a sense that the sexual abuse of children should be dealt with internally."

At Penn State, that meant that employees lacking in the correct training and authority to investigate sexual abuse claims took it upon themselves to determine the seriousness of the offense and administer their own punishments. (After one incident, Sandusky had his locker room keys confiscated). "Often you hear people defending their lack of action in these settings, saying they didn't know how serious it was," Stannow says. "If you don’t know how serious it is, that's yet another reason to call the police, for them to investigate it... It's this kind of quiet handling of these crimes, as if they weren’t crimes, but just 'problems,' that I see repeated over and over again in juvenile detention centers."

Sexual abuse doesn't just go away. "Sexual abuse is a crime needs to be dealt with forcefully and immediately in order to end the abuse and assist the victims," Stannow says. Even if a predator never acts again, the effects of child sexual abuse do not end with the assault. "On a more human level," says Stannow, "it is absolutely horrendous that the children in question didn’t receive any assistance in the aftermath of these abuses."

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Photo via (cc) Flickr user enviziondotnet\n
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