Misplaced trust often hurts our kids

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2011 - 8:55 PM

Twice recently, I received well-intentioned phone recordings from our elementary school, each a reminder to talk to our kids about the danger of strangers.

The first was in response to a neighborhood man allegedly harassing other grown-ups. The second came just before Halloween.

I thought about calling the school, but I feel like such a broken record on the "stranger-danger" issue that I didn't bother. After reading the Pennsylvania grand jury's report about Jerry Sandusky, I wish I had.

We desperately want our kids to be safe. We want them to grow up happy and trusting. But, still, we cannot get our hands around the ugly truth, which is that, in so many cases, it is no stranger who harms them.

Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was arrested a week ago, charged with sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years. The grand jury report is a sickening synopsis of the methodical workings of a sexual predator.

Sandusky founded the Second Mile in 1977, first as a group foster home to help "troubled boys," then as a charity dedicated to helping at-risk youth. He may have started out as a stranger, but he didn't remain one for long.

According to the grand jury, through Second Mile, and as a coach and mentor, Sandusky ingratiated himself with the boys and, often, their mothers. He gave them gifts -- golf clubs, computers, athletic shoes, jerseys. He treated them to Philadelphia Eagles football games. He invited them to eat in the dining hall with Penn State athletes, to Sandusky family picnics and on walks with the family dog.

Soon it wasn't odd at all that the boys were left alone with Sandusky, in the locker-room showers, or sleeping overnight in his basement, according to the report.

If there is anything remotely hopeful here, it's that we can see, unequivocally, the work we must do.

"The failure of people to report isn't an isolated incident, it's the norm," said Alison Feigh, community safety specialist with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. Feigh, who was featured in this column recently for her innovative work on behalf of children, has followed the Penn State story closely.

"Even front-line professionals often don't know what steps to take," she said. "We need better resources and training, such as that offered by the Minnesota-based National Child Protection Training Center, so that people who work in the field have that information. 'Here's how you report. Here's what to be looking for.' "

But the Penn State tragedy illustrates another barrier, even when those front-line professionals do know they are mandated to call the police or child protective services.

"The perpetrator, more often than not, is someone you know and trust. It's emotionally difficult to report," Feigh said. "It means painful realities about that person."

Do it anyway. Those public safety agencies, she said, are trained to "talk through this with you. They want to make it as easy as possible for people to report."

Feigh has been troubled this week by people who've asked her why the kids "didn't say something."

"We can't put the responsibility on the kid," she said. "Sex offenders are very good at what they do. They're in the position of power. Their attention, affection, slowly violates a child's boundaries."

That's one reason Feigh is no fan of the stranger-danger message. "It does not work," she said. "Kids have a very vivid image in their minds of what a stranger looks like. He's lurking in an alley, wearing a trench coat. He smells." If he doesn't fit that image, she said, they don't think he's a stranger.

Many kids are further confused by the message to avoid strangers when, on the first day of school, for example, "their school bus driver is a stranger. Their teacher is a stranger."

Far better, she said, are family passwords and ongoing discussions about how to seek help in scary situations. "If they're lost in the mall, for example, teach them to look for a mom with kids. Teach them to say, 'We don't keep secrets in my family,' or 'I need to check in before I get in anyone's car.'"

Most important, teach them to trust their gut around people they know. "If they are ever being hurt, or they're worried they're going to be hurt, encourage them to talk to another adult in their life."

Remind them that most adults want them to grow up happy and safe. This week's discussions, Feigh said, "can be a renewal of where our priorities are as a nation. If we believe that every child deserves to be safe, how do we reflect that in our daily choices?"

Devastatingly wrong choices apparently were made at Penn State. We must do better going forward.

"Imagine a world," Feigh said, "where every time a child was abused there was rioting in the streets."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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