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Community Voices 2012: Ellen Cooney Pueblo Child Advocacy Center

What if you were Mike McQueary and you spotted Jerry Sandusky in the shower with a young boy?

We would all like to believe that we would do everything in our power to protect that child. All too often that is not the case.

In a national survey, 95% of people said that they would report child abuse if they saw it. However, of those who had actually observed abuse, only 33% had made a report.

Why is there such a big gap?

Some of the darkest reasons are that people put their interests above the safety of the child. As Louis Freeh writes in his scathing report on Penn State’s failure to report suspicions of Sandusky’s abuse of children, “The most powerful men at Penn State … never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.” Football, the school’s reputation and a powerful man were more important.

Closer to home, people fail to report an employer because they might lose their job, or an abusive spouse because that person is also the wage-earner, or to keep the peace in the family. There are a million other reasons.

But there are also less pejorative reasons why people don’t report child abuse.

One major reason is that many people don’t know what to look for, particularly in cases of sexual abuse. We can address this by asking people to take a few minutes to educate themselves on the signs of abuse. The web site www.d2l.org for the Darkness to Light organization is a great resource.

The other major reason is that people fear what will happen to the child and family when the report is made. What if the child is further traumatized? What if it turns out that the suspicions aren’t true?

That’s where the Pueblo Child Advocacy Center comes in. We are convinced that if more people knew of the comforting setting we offer and the support we provide to families, they would be more willing to report suspected abuse.

We provide a homelike, child-friendly center – it looks and feels like a house rather than an office or clinical setting – for the investigation of child abuse. We take it as a good sign that many children fuss on their way out because they don’t want to leave this safe and fun place.

Aside from our toys, gentle support, and comforting surroundings, the Pueblo Child Advocacy Center offers specially trained professionals to talk with children without leading them, to provide specialized medical examinations to make sure the child is healthy, and to connect the child and caregiver to services in the community as they heal. PCAC works closely with law enforcement, Child Protection Services and the District Attorney to make sure that the child is safe and to develop the evidence needed to keep the abuser from hurting children again.

In nearly half of the 200 cases we see each year, we conclude that abuse probably has not occurred. Sometimes we are just checking on children who may have been around an abuser. Sometimes something else – a nasty custody battle between parents, or a medical condition that is mistaken for abuse – is going on.

It is perfectly fine that we rule out abuse in so many cases. It is the community’s job to report suspicions of abuse; it is our job to figure out whether it is likely that abuse is occurring, and to protect the child from further abuse. We are glad to check every case rather than run the risk that one child continues to suffer.

We can’t do this work alone. It is community members who must care enough to put children first and to report suspicions of abuse. We can only take steps to protect children when abuse is reported. That means we need the whole community to help protect children.

If you think you see signs of abuse, you don’t need to be certain or do the investigation yourself. You just need to make a report. In Pueblo County, you can call the Child Abuse Reporting line at 719-583-6901 or dial 911.

Ellen Cooney is the Executive Director of the Pueblo Child Advocacy Center, www.pueblocac.com

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