After Jerry Sandusky

I’ve listened to many women’s stories of childhood sexual abuse. I don’t know why they choose me as their confidante—it’s not my story—but once they start talking, I feel an obligation to listen. And so I cried with recognition, last month, when I read a story that Barry Bearak in The New York Times wrote about Quanitta Underwood, a young woman who’s hoping to represent the U.S. in Olympic boxing—because I have heard precisely this story, more than once. Bearak captures the experiences of Quanitta and her older sister as they tried to cope with their father’s regular forays into their bedroom:

Quanitta pinched her eyes shut when her father entered the room, but she could imagine the presence of his familiar silhouette. She felt his weight sink into the bed while his hands traveled beneath the covers. As Quanitta feigned sleep, her father groped her sister and often rolled on top.

Azzad Underwood was a forceful man, not so much in size as in manner. He was a welder by trade but gave way to few men in self-importance. He could be charming….

Both girls loved him and trusted him, but young as they were, they realized their father was doing something on the wrong side of normal, far from Jesus.

The most important thing, Quanitta told herself, was never to let on that she knew, for this was a secret surely meant to be hidden in the dark. So she lay motionless in the bed, breathing gently through a sleeping face. Sometimes, her father pushed her aside, and she drowsily flopped over.

Then, she recalled, her strategy changed. Maybe she could protect Hazzauna by acting as if she were about to awaken. From time to time, she shifted in the bed restlessly, changing the rhythm in the sequences of her breath.

Her fear was always for her sister. Quanitta was only in the fourth grade, too young yet to imagine that Azzad would inevitably do the same things to her.

Even excerpting it brings me to tears. I recognize so much about this story. The charming, domineering father who sneaks into the girls’ bedroom, pretending that what he does is love. The child who believes she has the power to make it stop, who turns it into her own secret, who is haunted by shame and fear. The tremendous drive to prove herself outstanding at something, to show that she is better than what happened to her. I hate these stories. I want them to stop.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t particularly surprised by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It was just over a year ago that the story was beginning to be exposed by the amazing young reporter Sara Ganim (the link is to a profile of her in Glamour). I assume that such things are happening regularly, which makes any investigations and arrests a good thing. And so, since Sandusky’s behavior launched a national media whirlwind, I’ve been focusing on the silver lining. I’ve assumed that the huge national discussion of the problem would wake up parents and others, helping them stay more alert to their children’s well-being on the field. And I assumed that, around the country, sports programs were examining their staff in an attempt to uncover and get rid of any abusers.

When I mentioned these things, one friend shook his head at me (virtually, over e-mail), suggesting I was painfully naïve to imagine that any sports program might actually get introspective; he thought that, rather, coaches and program directors would double down on their insistence that no such thing had ever happened under their purview. But I couldn’t see how it could be otherwise. The threat of prosecutions, lawsuits, and ignominious firing must be shaking things up in the world of sports.

So I’m happy to report that, here and there, I am spotting some encouraging signs. The Washington state legislature just passed a bill that would turn selected college employees into mandated reporters:

The legislation became known as the "Jerry Sandusky bill" after the former assistant coach at Penn State University who has been accused of molesting minors.

 “In following the horrific media coverage of the Penn State University abuse scandal last fall, I knew right away we had to add higher education employees as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen.Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

And I found a Boston Globe story noting that, locally, sports programs are working to better train their coaches in what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. The Globe article mentions that the local Pop Warner program is training its coaches how to behave, and that the Little League program is reminding its coaches how to report suspicions of child abuse. Unfortunately, it appears that the main concern, so far, is staying safe from accusations:

The [Pop Warner] online tutorial warns against such things as driving other children home from practices, advising coaches to instead call police if a child’s ride does not show and parents cannot be reached. Officials also plan to reemphasize the importance of touching athletes only in appropriate places, generally on the helmet for a football player, on the arm for a cheerleader….

“You know how you used to pat kids on the butt and send them into the game? Some people see that as inappropriate contact now.”

It would be a shame if the fear of misinterpretation and litigation were to limit good coaches in bonding with players. What would be better: trainings that help coaches, and others, know what signs of abuse to look for in the children they coach. Let’s hear more like this story, in which the Massachusetts town of Melrose—in the wake of a local YMCA’s child-abuse scandal—is focusing on training citizens in:

…identifying sexual abuse, developing a response plan, and legal reporting requirements…. [T]he Y is considering offering training sessions for parent-teacher organizations, youth sports coaches, and leaders of other groups. The goal is to have 5 percent of Melrose’s population, or about 1,300 residents, take the course.

I love that idea: training sentinels through a community who know how to spot troubling signs among any of the young people they come across. Because while I’ve heard many stories about coaches who molest their charges, Quanitta’s is the far more common story: a child’s abuser is his or her father, stepfather, uncle, or neighbor. To catch and stop that, we all have to be on the alert.

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