Our children often have a unique vantage point on the world adults have created. They see the contradictions between what we say and what we do. In the book Bitters in the Honey: Tales of Hope and Disappointment Across Divides of Race and Time, a white student at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 describes looking out the window of her classroom one day and watching a mob of whites chase a black newspaper reporter who was in town to cover the integration of the high school. Betsy recalls: "In that moment, while I'm watching this, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, hand on my heart, I'm thinking, there's something wrong here … What's wrong with this picture?"
Even when we comfort ourselves with the fantasy that they are "too young to understand," children see the difference between our public pronouncements and the actions that more accurately reflect our values. Children see because they are often the victims of our wrongheaded policies, our selfish dogmatic thinking and even our abusive conduct.
Despite our rhetorical references to our children as our nation's "treasure," despite the stated concern of politicians, movie stars, community leaders, clergy and even parents that our focus is always on "the children," the truth is that, far too often, our children are treated as an expendable commodity, neither heard nor seen, and too often unprotected. How we respond to the Penn State tragedy will show where we place our values.
And so the Penn State child abuse scandal holds a spotlight up to an ugly truth about contemporary American values. It's hard to even calculate the failures of adults in the scandal — those who saw and heard, and called their bosses and their fathers and school administrators, but never the police. If even half of the allegations asserted in the detailed grand jury indictment are true (and they remain allegations that have not yet been proven), then Jerry Sandusky is a calculating predator — a stalker of children, who created and used a foundation for troubled youth to feed his insatiable sexual desire for adolescent boys.
Perhaps we are naive to be shocked. As all adults know, monsters do exist. They live among us, created often by their own experiences as child victims of horrific physical or psychological abuse. Many are respectable citizens, wielding enormous power over communities and their own families. And we know that this makes these monsters even more scary and more dangerous. We tell our children to beware of "bad men." But we are often unwilling to tell them to beware of "good men." And too often we are seduced by the allure of these "good men" ourselves, refusing to believe what our eyes and our instincts tell us is true.
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.