Stay vigilant in protecting children
As a justice on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, I can state with certainty that no cases have affected me more than those involving the sexual abuse of children. Throughout my 17 years on the appellate bench, I have been astounded by the sheer number of these cases that come before our courts. These are, indeed, the most appalling of crimes, perpetrated upon the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society.
As a judge and as a mother, I am issuing a wakeup call to mothers.
For most of us, the thought of an adult sexually abusing a child is inconceivable. And yet, we judges see cases in our courtrooms that are too horrific to discuss in polite conversation. Regrettably, these stories repeat themselves day after day in our communities. Each year, thousands of Pennsylvania children are victims of sexual abuse. Statistics show that 67 percent of victims are under 18, one-third are under 12 and one in seven cases involves children under 6.
The impact on a child of sexual abuse is profound and long lasting. And it is often made worse by the conspiracy of silence among adults who look the other way or refuse to believe or protect the child. Sadly, most instances of child sexual abuse — 90 percent — never come to our attention. Victims may exhibit no physical signs of harm. Fear, secrecy and intense feelings of shame may prevent children, as well as adults aware of the abuse, from seeking help. Furthermore, assaults often go undetected because most occur in the privacy of the home and in the absence of witnesses.
Nearly all offenders — 96 percent — are male, regardless of whether the crime is committed against a girl or a boy. I have observed that a significant percentage of child sexual assault cases involve abuse by the mother’s boyfriend, the child’s stepfather or even the child’s father. This is why my wakeup call is directed to mothers.
Statistics support my observation, revealing that parents and other caretakers commit 26 percent of the sexual assaults on children, and, in cases involving children under 7, almost half of the offenders are family members. Sadly, the predator is most often a person the child knows intimately and depends on for love and protection.
For older children, the abuser is predominantly an acquaintance, such as a neighbor or a coach, a parent or stepparent or another relative. Contrary to the perception of many, strangers are the least likely to sexually abuse a child.
Most adults, men and women, who are parenting and nurturing our community’s children are good people and loving caretakers, but some of our children are in jeopardy. Mothers may be too trusting and unaware of the dangers of exposing their children to predatory adults. These perpetrators may appear to be upstanding members of the community. They may be charming and appear to be genuinely interested in children. Sexual assaults often occur when mothers are at work or asleep, and children are left alone with — and at the mercy of — their abuser. Tragically, sexual abuse can continue for months and even years before it is discovered because children are afraid to speak up. Moreover, sex offenders who victimize children are more than twice as likely to have multiple victims as those who target adults.
In Pennsylvania, we strive to protect our children, and we prosecute and punish those who harm them. Our legislature has enacted laws mandating reporting and imposing harsher penalties for sexual crimes against children, and it is incumbent upon the courts to issue sentences that reflect the seriousness of these offenses.
However, the harm to a child cannot be undone, no matter what punishment we impose on the perpetrator. That is why my focus is always on prevention. We must bring this topic out of the shadows and make certain it stays in the forefront of our public consciousness, however uncomfortable it may be to discuss. Only then can we make progress in protecting our children from the nightmare of sexual abuse.
So, with Mother’s Day just passed, I urge all mothers to be vigilant in protecting our community’s children. Never leave your child in the care of someone whom you do not know well and trust completely. Make sure your children know they can come to you and that you will always keep them safe. Teach them that they have the right to say “no” to physical contact with others. And if you suspect any child has been abused, please call the police or call Childline 1-800-932-0313. (You may remain anonymous.)
Sensational cases of child abductions reported by the national media justifiably result in public outrage. Where, however, is the public outrage for the thousands of children abused each year in their own homes? Where are their advocates? These children, too, need a voice in the criminal justice system and a place in our public consciousness. Our community’s children deserve to feel safe and secure. They deserve the carefree days of youth. Those of us whose voices can be heard must be vigilant in protecting these children — the most vulnerable among us. Our children are entitled to nothing less. — Debra Todd, justice, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania