Are We Willing to Protect Our Children?
It's not enough to be shocked by the Penn State case. We can do better to protect them from harm.
Child sexual abuse is too often treated like a family problem or a character issue, rather than a crime. The revelations of systematic and widespread impunity for Catholic priests who sexually abused young children exposed how even those entrusted with the spiritual development of millions of people used their power to protect child sexual predators -- destroying the lives of countless children and families and staining the integrity of the Catholic Church.
Child sex abuse is perhaps the most grotesque but certainly not the only way we fail our children. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. children live in poverty. In states like Mississippi, where the energies of the adult leadership in the state have been consumed most recently with the vote on whether a fertilized egg is a person, 30 percent of children live in poverty. More than 20,000 children are victims (pdf) of gun violence each year. In many states voters find a never-ending source of funds to build prisons, even as public education is starved into incompetence. In what other Western country is there even such a thing as a "school-to-prison pipeline"?
It's perhaps fitting that just last week the Supreme Court announced its decision to hear two cases this term that will determine whether juveniles who commit homicide can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Given how many teenagers convicted of homicide are themselves former victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, these cases will once again force us to confront what happens to our children when we allow them to be simply thrown away by those who can't or won't care for them.
In too many ways, we are failing our children. And yet we have the power to make the lives of children in this country better, safer, healthier and happier. We can change state laws that don't require adults who witness child abuse to report it to the police. We can enact economic policies that lift children out of poverty. We can rededicate our funds and commitment to functioning public school systems in our states -- systems that cater to the needs of real children and not just to our outdated ideas of what school should be.
Are we willing to support policies that help loving, responsible parents care for their children -- like longer school days and better public transportation systems so kids aren't home alone so long and working parents can travel to and from work quickly enough to make it home for dinner? Just because the Supreme Court has read an individual's right to bear arms into the Constitution, we are not relieved of the obligation to fight to reduce the prevalence of guns in our society. But to take these steps requires each of us to take seriously our role as adults in our society, whether or not we have children of our own.
Jerry Sandusky is now proclaiming his innocence, which he is entitled to do by law. He admits to "horsing around" with boys from his mentoring program, and admits that he "shouldn't have showered" with the young boys. If this is his best defense, Sandusky may wish to consult again with his lawyer and with prosecutors before inflicting even more emotional harm on the young boys who were entrusted to his care by allowing this matter to go to trial. But even if Sandusky is tried, found guilty and serves an appropriate sentence, we will not be relieved of our obligation to do more than just recoil in horror at the next story of systematic child abuse by a trusted public figure.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.