WHAT WE DID
In January of 2012 a small group of concerned citizens in Centre County began to meet in churches and coffee shops as an informal grassroots organization to try to “really make a change in the statistics of child sexual abuse”. Current estimates are that 1 in 4 girls and one in 6 boys are (or will be) sexually abused before the age of 18. We knew that only with a strategic, concerted effort to protect and defend children by all adults in the community could we hope to be successful.
In searching for a way to engage the general population we learned about a process called World Café, which gathers small groups in a café-like setting to hold deep conversations about issues of importance to the participants. We hoped that in the process of these guided conversations, consensus would eventually emerge that would lead to action.
We contacted a skilled educator in the World Café process, Marilyn Anderson, and raised funding through several local churches, individuals, and organizations in order to bring the trainer to State College in January, 2013. Marilyn trained nine local facilitators in the World Café process, and together we led nine public cafes at various locations in State College and Bellefonte. At each café, the conversation was centered on issues relating to child sexual abuse and how to prevent it.
In November, 2011, a storm of controversy enveloped State College as the news broke that the founder of a statewide charity, The Second Mile, serving disadvantaged children and adolescents had been indicted on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Not only was this a respected person in the community, he was also well known to fans nationally as a former Penn State football coach who had worked alongside famed coach, Joe Paterno, for years.
In the months after the news about Sandusky came out, and the media storm that buffeted our community with the blame being cast on Penn State, the firing of Coach Joe Paterno, and accusations of complicity in hiding the abuse levied on university officials, including University President Graham Spanier, the atmosphere in State College and the surrounding community was indeed grim. Feelings of shock, anger, and shame were palpable among Penn Staters and the general public, whose identification with the university was intense and proud. It seemed that all our local pride had turned to embarrassment and disgust—almost overnight.
In conversations across the county the major topic was always about “the scandal”. Some residents wondered if there was any way to turn the negative energy and hopelessness into constructive ideas, knowledge, and action. A small group began looking into how to help members of the community deal with their complex emotions and to fight this hidden and pernicious crime against our community’s children.
After months of sharing and connecting with other organizations actively seeking to respond to the situation, it was suggested that we use the World Café process in a series of “Community Cafés” throughout 2013 which could be a forum for religious groups to sponsor as a way for the religious community to contribute its own unique response to the Sandusky scandal. State College faith organizations partnering were the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County (UUFCC), University Mennonite Church, State College Presbyterian Church, and Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church. They were, later joined by the First Presbyterian Church of Bellefonte. The State College Kiwanis Club added its financial support to the original funds donated by a local community member and child sexual abuse survivor.
WHAT WE DISCOVERED
In the duration of the nine community cafes, we had a total of 103 participants, of which 46 were returning participants after experiencing a community café. The topics covered in these cafes were varied from one café to the next. These topics helped us come to some conclusions through the discussions we had, the evaluations that were filled out, the writings & doodles on the table covers, and the suggestions we had from the participants.
How the participants felt about child sexual abuse were feelings many seemed to share among each other and the community around them. One of the participants had written on the tabletop that we need to, “…be able to speak about ‘unspeakable’ topics.” For them, child sexual abuse is an “unspeakable” topic and this was an idea that many others shared during the discussions throughout each café. They felt that it was a very private issue, which made people uncomfortable to talk about it in public. Many times, people did not want to be affiliated with it, especially if they were part of a bigger organization or team. This feeling was also mutual when the Sandusky case was discussed. People felt angry towards the issue, yet they felt the community around them was too embarrassed to talk about it or take action. However, the participants seemed to feel very passionate about getting this movement off the ground and due to that, they wanted to be more informed. Many of them did not feel very informed on child sexual abuse in general and how to deal with it, mainly due to the privatization of the problem. Hence, they felt much better informed after their experience of the community café.
Through the discussions with the participants of the cafes, we learned that they think the best way to protect children from child sexual abuse and to prevent it is education. This education includes the education of parents, family members, and children themselves. The participants felt that the community was largely uninformed, themselves included, on how to prevent child sexual abuse, how to recognize a predator/victim, how to educate their children, and what resources are available to them. The most important education that the participants felt needs to take place is the education of children at home. This education needs to include self-protection, sexuality, and how to come forward if they are being victimized. It also needs to be clear and concise, without any room for misunderstanding. As children, many are taught “nicknames” for their genital parts as a way of protecting them, as if their genitals are something to hide from or be ashamed of. This causes a massive conflict when it comes to children admitting they are sexually abused. First off, the children feel ashamed of their genitals or feel like they are something to not be spoken about. Hence, when they are being victimized, they feel too embarrassed to talk about it to someone. Secondly, when these nicknames are given to children’s genitals, it becomes a much clouded situation when they come to adults with the abuse that is taking place. For example, if a vagina were nicknamed a “cookie”, a child would come up to an adult saying, “He/she touched my cookie.” This makes it very confusing for an adult to understand and comprehend what the child is saying to them and many times the situation goes unnoticed.
Education on child sexual abuse in the family will also make it easier for adults to believe their children when they come forth with something like this. Many times the situation is unseen due to adults not believing their children. This is a severe issue and part of it is because they believe the child has misinterpreted something or does not know what they are talking about. If family members educate their children on the severity of this issue, both the child and parent can communicate freely and concisely, without room for misunderstanding. Lastly, free and open education between children and their family members helps children to admit to this abuse sooner rather than later, as they know that they can talk about this issue openly to the people close to them. Hence, education in the family seemed to be the most important way of preventing child sexual abuse among the participants of the cafes. They felt it was the easiest way for children and family members to identify and communicate any abuse between himself and herself, as they are the people the children trust the most.
This family education can be hard though, as many participants agreed that they would not know how to go about starting that at an early age appropriately and continuing it as the children grew up. Hence, we came up with the idea of using three main community institutions, hospitals, schools, and religious organizations, in order to educate the local community at different stages of their children’s lives and to assist them in educating their children. Hospitals would serve as the starting point of education for parents and family members with newborn children. There would be required classes on healthy relationships and recognizing the signs of a predator/victim of child sexual abuse. These classes would help parents learn how to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse in their family or their surroundings at an early age of their children’s lives. These classes would also inform them on resources that are available to them in their community to educate them on how to teach their children about sexuality, self-protection, and healthy relationships at an early age, using the right language. These would include such resources as Stewards of Children, Child Advocacy Center, who to call in order to report a suspect, and books on how to educate your children or introduce them to self-protection at each stage of their lives appropriately. In this way, the lives of children can be protected from an early age, both by parents and by the children themselves.
Schools would also play a role in preventing child sexual abuse at an early age, and they would also play a continuing role. The participants believed schools should continue education of children on sexuality, emotions, healthy relationships, and self-protection. This would help children feel comfortable enough to express their feelings, share their thoughts, and not feel embarrassed to talk to school officials if someone is abusing them in the family. As was made clear in our discussion, most predators of child sexual abuse (90%) are known to the child, either as close family members, family friends, or other trusted adults. Due to that, it becomes hard for the victim to feel comfortable talking to someone close to him or her if they are being victimized. Here, school officials can play a huge role in identifying victims and helping students feel comfortable enough for them to tell a trusted school official about what they may be going through. Also, educating children on sexuality and self-protection can help them get a clear idea of what is acceptable in their everyday relationships and what is not. Moreover, it can help children learn that they have services and people available to them if they are a victim and this can help them come forward without embarrassment, which as we learned is a common feeling among not only victims but the general public about child sexual abuse. Therefore, we believe schools can play a tremendous role in preventing child sexual abuse.
As we continued these cafes, we realized how much religious organizations could assist in the prevention of child sexual abuse. Religion is a substantial part of many people’s lives. We discovered in these religious organizations, this issue of child sexual abuse seemed to be even more unspeakable. People felt it was perceived as shameful and due to that, something people had to hide. It is considered a terrible act to commit in most religions, but due to that, it gives off this vibe of shame and embarrassment for the victims themselves. Hence, if education on child sexual abuse became part of these organizations, it could help many people feel comfortable enough to report it and try to prevent it. Many people trust their respective leaders in their religious community and for many these leaders play a lead role in their lives. Therefore, if congregants knew that it is acceptable to talk about such an issue, they may use this resource in order to prevent this abuse around them. Also, early education on this for children through their religious organization could help children come forth with their issues, as would schools and hospitals.
WHY WE THINK THIS IS IMPORTANT
Child sexual abuse is shockingly prevalent in the US. One in four girls and one in six boys will have been sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. To make this concrete, five children in a classroom of 20 is or has been sexually abused. Sandusky’s victims were was just the tip of the iceberg. Many more children were and are being sexually abused every day—in our community—and in many other communities across the country. Realizing the enormity of the problem and also the long term damage that sexual abuse can cause—in drug and alcohol addiction, sexual promiscuity, mental health problems, physical ailments, and criminal activity—we knew we had to do something to engage the community in stopping this injustice against our children. We also knew that with a problem this big, it would take all of us to make a difference.
Through the café conversations we were able to brainstorm about what resources currently exist and what still need to be created in order to eliminate child sexual abuse in our community. We found that the structure of the café process provided a safe and confidential way for people to discuss sexuality and child sexual abuse, to share information, and to work toward solutions.
In talking with students, our families, and coworkers, it struck us that if we could harness all the negative feelings and channel them into constructive dialogue, this might enable people to face their fears in talking about such a sensitive topic, work through their discomfort together, and mobilize themselves into groups that would take action in their own lives to begin to solve the problem. In the process, we hoped that we could find a way to heal our own hurt and anger and use it to fuel new ideas and constructive action. In our own way, we envisioned that we as a community might be able to actually change the statistics on child sexual abuse, and even become a model community for the rest of the country.
We believe that this process needs to continue in our community and needs to be introduced into other communities, in order to get the conversation started on informing people about child sexual abuse. We learned throughout the cafes that people had a lot of questions about child sexual abuse that this process helped to answer, and that people had a lot of ideas on how we could prevent this from happening in the future. We also learned that this process helped people feel empowered and helped them cope with the idea of child sexual abuse. This was made evident when we asked people to describe their feelings with one word at the end of the cafes on our surveys. The figure below shows this data of what people said in all the cafes totaled. As can be seen, this process helped the participants in many ways, all of them being positive. This is why we believe this process needs to continue expanding and this issue needs to continue being addressed.
Feelings of participants taken from surveys collected at the end of each café
CONCLUSIONS AND TAKE HOME MESSAGES
This report, as well as photos, artistic renderings, and conversation threads from each café can be found at:
1. List of age-appropriate books about sexuality to read aloud with children:
2. Red Flag Behaviors Signaling Possible Abusers
3. Model Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital, New Orleans
4. Religious education curricula including human sexuality
5. CSA Prevention and Care in Centre County