My Turn: ‘Kryptonite shouldn’t drive sex abuse policy

  • Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Chicago, after his sentencing on federal banking charges which he pled guilty to last year. Hastert was sentenced to more than a year in prison in the hush-money case that included accusations he sexually abused teenagers while coaching high school wrestling. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 5/1/2016 12:18:12 AM

Child molesters are kryptonite to politics. Any candidate Dennis Hastert ever endorsed or was even pictured with is now likely imagining it emblazoned in an opposition ad. Here in New Hampshire, both Senate candidates are trying to ward off the taint of sexual abusers who contributed to their campaigns.

In the legislative arena, the kryptonite connection drives politicians to any opportunity to display their righteous disgust for child molesters with laws to lengthen their sentences, zone them out of town or label their passports.

But all this does not make for the best public policy on this crucially important child protection issue. Sexual abuse at the hands of adults and other youth still blights the childhood of as many as a quarter of girls and 5 percent of boys growing up today.

There is considerable consensus among experts about what would be truly helpful strategies to combat this problem. But not much of it is being supported by those who would offer themselves as champions of children because it requires both funding and a more nuanced perspective.

Schools and organizations need help establishing guidelines and training staff about acceptable conduct and how to avoid and report situations that lead to abuse. Administrators need help to become more comfortable with the topic and the management of disclosures and investigations.

Children need education about appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior and how to recognize, resist and assist their friends. Parents need instruction and support about how to talk to and effectively supervise their youngsters.

Treatment services are badly needed in every community for children and families who have been affected by the problem, and for offenders to reduce the likelihood that they will re-offend.

The justice system needs to become more child friendly, so that victims and families will more readily come forward. This should include more confidentiality, more developmentally trained police, and expedited investigations and prosecutions.

Sadly, the kryptonite connotation is a major obstacle. How can we get officials, colleagues, victims and parents to report abuse or voice concerns when they know that it is likely to mark them and their organization, their family or their community with an indelible stain?

In truth, given the magnitude of the problem, there is likely someone who has sexually abused a child within almost everyone’s social, professional or family network. So we all have a stake in tamping down the impulse to cast easy blame and use guilt by association.

Sexual abuse is a complicated, sensitive, emotionally freighted problem that we are all trying to learn more about and become more courageous in confronting.

(David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes against Children Research Center and professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire.)




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