Everyone Cares: Who is Ready to Take Action?

Why do people need to be legally compelled to report suspected abuse, if everyone is confused, horrified, and outraged by abuse?  Is the popularity and power of college sports the cause?

The outrage, horror, and confusion is everywhere:  respected leaders who held suspicions and/ or  knowledge of children being abused by an adult and did not take sufficient steps to stop the abuse  have gotten the attention of the nation. The term “swept under the rug” is being used to describe the motivation of the head coach and the university president to keep from threatening the football program. Those of us who study and practice preventing violence have a different perspective. Mandatory reporting laws were drawn up and passed across the nation with all the fervor of our beliefs:  abuse should never go unreported and always be stopped. I do not believe that many university officials got up in the morning motivated to let another adult have access to children for sexual exploitation. That is just not how abuse continues.  Most people do not exploit children. Most people are appalled to know that children are hurt by others and WE do not take steps to stop the abuse or persist in the face of resistance to efforts to stop it.

The fact that abuse goes unreported is one of those painful situations in which we very much do not want what is happening and we fail to effectively change things. Abuse and the failure to report suspected abuse is wrong and harmful and that is why we have mandatory reporting laws across the entire country.  We also know that abuse too often goes unreported. For example in addition to the Penn State story, The Boston Globe reported a study last week  that  looked at physicians’ decisions to report suspected abuse (November 9th, 2011). The study showed that a substantial percentage of incidents of suspected abuse that warranted further investigation went unreported by medical professionals to law enforcement and social service agencies.

I wish I could tell you that failure to report is a rare event. I cannot.  Research has also found that licensed psychologists in clinical practice fail to report suspected abuse and fail to inform patients of their legal obligation to report (Kalichmann, & Craig, 1991). One of the factors that psychologists consider is the likelihood that the family or child will stay in therapy. Is this different from the Penn State situation? When people hesitate or equivocate on reporting suspected abuse or child exposure to violence there are serious consequences: the abuse continues without any interference and the legal system is hampered in its efforts to stop the abuse.

Our collective willingness to stop exposing children to any and all violence is weak and often uninformed. We see other people as responsible for stopping abuse, we see ourselves as helpless, we lack information about whom to report to and how to report so that action can be taken. Victor Vieth from the National Child Protection Training Center  imagines a world in which many people from all walks of life have a working knowledge of child abuse and how to effectively intervene in his paper:  “Unto the Third Generation: How to End Child Abuse in 140 Years.”  Victor’s call to action comes from his years of experience in efforts to stop child abuse and from vast and growing literature showing that even the experts lack sufficient training. Educators, psychologists, physicians, and nurses fail to report abuse and child exposure to violence. We know this and we know it is not because these professionals do not care. It is for a lot of good reasons that can be addressed with training and experience.

While we try to right ourselves from the shock of learning that maltreatment goes unreported, let us take an accounting of our own willingness to participate and to support efforts to stop abuse. Mandated reporting laws have been followed by decades of too many reports to strapped social service agencies for them  to effectively handle. Too little training for professionals and too little coordination of efforts persists in our education system.

We see maltreatment prevention as a specialized role but Penn State University is a demonstration that this is not true. We all have an ethical obligation to disclose abuse and attend to the need for public service agencies to follow through on the enforcement of our belief that children should be protected from violence.

Kalichman, S.C., & Craig, M. E. (1991). Practicing psychologists’ decision to report suspected child abuse: clinician and situational influences.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.