Stay vig­i­lant in pro­tect­ing chil­dren

Springfield Sun - - OPINION - By Judge De­bra Todd

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

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