Best Way to Help Sexually Abused Children is to Believe Them

Nov 15 2011 | 1:14pm ET

Kathryn Conroy, Director of Hedge Funds Care, Gives Insights on Penn State Scandal. The shocking allegations of child sexual abuse and cover-up at Penn State have focused the country’s attention more powerfully than any previous case. 

In the following Question & Answer, Dr. Kathryn Conroy, the Executive Director and CEO of Hedge Funds Care and an expert in child abuse, discusses surprising—and hopeful—findings about sexual abuse of children. Hedge Funds Care is an international, non-profit organization founded in 1998 by hedge fund managers concerned about children’s welfare. In addition to her current role at Hedge Funds Care, Dr. Conroy has also served as former Assistant Dean at Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City.

FINalternatives:  What’s different about the Penn State child sexual abuse case? Other respected institutions, notably the Catholic Church, have been implicated in similar scandals, but Penn State seems to have raised awareness even more.

Dr. Conroy: That’s because the Penn State allegations are disturbing in two important ways. First, there is the allegation that a graduate athletic assistant actually witnessed the abuse and did not stop it.  Sexual abuse of children is very hard to prove because it almost always takes place in private, but here’s a case where someone saw something. Second, we all have a fairly clear idea of what a public university is and how it functions, whereas religious organizations are perhaps less well-understood.  So this is an incident that took place in an institution that every adult is familiar with. 

What does recent research say about childhood sexual abuse? Do the victims of it ever really recover?

Dr. Conroy: Studies show that the single most important factor in a child’s recovery is whether anyone believes the child’s account.  When adults take a child’s account seriously, the child is able to shed a lot of the shame that comes with sexual abuse and instead shift responsibility for the heinous act to where it belongs: the abuser. Research is clear that children who have been sexually abused fare best in later life if they are believed when it is found out.  If a child comes to you with an account, get help as soon as you can. Sort out the details later.

How do you protect children from sexual abuse without making them suspicious of friends, neighbors, coaches, teachers and even family members?

Dr. Conroy: It’s important that we not give children the message that it is their responsibility not to get abused! That is an adult responsibility. The child's responsibility is to know what to do if it happens.  And what they need to know is who to go to. It is our job as adults to make child sexual abuse unacceptable in our communities and make sure that any child so affected knows who to go to for help, and that help is available

So how do you get this message across?

Dr. Conroy: We protect children and prevent child sexual abuse by preparing them. It is essential that children know that they have control over their own bodies and that no one has the right to violate them. There are very good programs--Hedge Funds Care has distributed over $30 million since 1999 to fund over 800 such programs--that teach children about personal boundaries, about appropriate and inappropriate touch, and about what to do if they are made to feel uncomfortable by someone. 

Is our society making progress in preventing sexual child abuse?

Dr. Conroy: Yes, though the statistics are still horrific. The National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse reports that 27% of all women and 16% of all men are sexually abused as children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network cites 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused by the time they are 18.  

Why do you say there is progress?

Dr. Conroy: Because we’re learning to deal with it. We now have "Mandated Reporters." These are certain professionals who are required by law to report suspected child abuse when acting in their official capacity. As a licensed clinical social worker, I am one of those people.  So are doctors, nurses, teachers, guidance counselors, dental hygienists, etc.

We need to do more. Maybe what we need are "Moral Reporters"--those who are not mandated by law but who are morally required by living in society, such as coaches. Perhaps it should apply to all of us. As I mentioned, child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, happens out of sight.  If we suspect that it is occurring we have a moral obligation to report it to the local child welfare organization or the police.

For More Information, Visit Hedge Funds Care

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