Analysis Violence

Preventing and Reporting Child Abuse: The Questions Raised by the Penn State Scandal

Steve Brown

In any particular abuse situation there is an abuser, a victim, and (almost always) bystanders. This is true in bullying, street violence, as well as child sexual abuse. One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is -- what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action?

Last week, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury indicted former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky for sexually abusing eight boys over the course of a 15-year period. The indictment also charged two top university officials with perjury and failure to report what they knew about the allegations.  The indictment has kicked off a firestorm of media attention both in the sports world and the US at large. On November 9th, the Penn State Board of Trustees fired legendary football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier. Allegedly, a graduate assistant told Paterno that he observed Sandusky abusing one of the boys. Paterno reported this to Athletic Director Tim Curley although did not follow up later on the matter or alert legal authorities himself. The indictment stated that President Spanier was made aware of the incident reported to Paterno as well. 

In any particular abuse situation there is an abuser, a victim, and (almost always) bystanders. This is true in bullying, street violence, as well as child sexual abuse. One of the most important questions that the Penn State situation, and cases like it, raise is — what is it about the nature of intimate sexual violence that stops so many bystanders from taking action when they either have direct information that abuse has occurred or, more commonly, just an inkling that something might not be right. 

It is true that men like Mr. Sandusky can often be well-regarded, upstanding citizens, involved in the community, even loved as a role-model by many.  However, it is ALSO true, as has come out in the press, that numerous people had direct knowledge of, and even directly witnessed, Mr. Sandusky sexually abusing boys. Despite this knowledge, they were passive bystanders, not active ones. If any one of these adults took appropriate action to report this to the proper legal authorities, maybe the abuse would have ended with one or two boys rather than eight. Maybe the victims would have been given help and protection.  

While some adults in this situation had direct knowledge of the abuse, I’m guessing there are likely many others who had troubling gut feelings about Mr. Sandusky –family, neighbors, players, coaches, etc.  Many such people are now wracking their brains about what signs they might have missed, why didn’t they trust their gut, and, most importantly, what prevented them from coming forward. These are good and important questions. Even Joe Paterno, whose Penn State football team proudly extolled a reputation for being “squeaky clean” and whose motto was “success with honor,” could not see clear to act on his moral responsibility to protect current and future victims.  It is especially disturbing that those with direct knowledge could not muster the resolve to actively speak out.

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However, for all of us, there is this critical question — WHAT prevents us from speaking out, not ignoring what we see, paying attention to these gut feelings, checking them out, talking with a friend or colleague about them, and ultimately taking action to alert the proper authorities?

I think there are complicated answers to this question. 

Much of it relates to our societal denial about the reality of child sexual abuse.  We SO want sex abuse to be about the creepy pervert, the stranger who abducts and molests our kids. Let’s just put them all on sex offender registries, attach GPS devices to their ankles and we’ll be okay. We DON’T want to admit that 90 percent of sex abuse is committed by people known by the victim and the family – our brothers, uncles, fathers, stepdads, and…yes…coaches.

If we do speak up, we are intruding on the privacy of the hallowed family –whether it be a family unit or the Penn State family.  Sometimes, we don’t know what signs to pay attention to in these men. Even if we do, we don’t want to get involved: “I told my supervisor. If they don’t act, it must not be that big a deal. Anyway, if anything happens, it’s on them, not me.”

We especially don’t want to get involved when there are powerful people and institutions involved. When those institutions have “squeaky clean” images to uphold, we don’t want to be responsible for tarnishing that image. If we do raise our concerns, we risk social rejection. We also need to have some comfort with our feelings related to the shrouded area of sexuality and the language of sex to get involved and speak up. If we speak up (as an adult bystander or a victim), it is HIGHLY likely that things will get worse in the short term although hopefully better in the long term. 

Many people, playing Monday morning quarterback, are outraged about the fact that bystanders didn’t speak up (and we should be outraged by this case), but this does NOT recognize the reality of the barriers listed above. Until we grapple as a society with these many barriers, we will make limited progress on prevention.

Child sexual abuse prevention, led by organizations such as Stop It Now!, seeks to answer exactly these questions  – how do we help adult bystanders recognize the signs of sexual abuse, talk with others about what they are seeing, and find the courage and words to speak up. Unlike Penn State, most often it is a wife speaking up about (or to) her husband whom she sees repeatedly coming out of their daughters’ bedroom in the middle of the night; a neighbor speaking up about (or to) a beloved neighbor who frequently has boys coming in and out of his house; an adult niece speaking up about (or to) a great uncle who always wants to play video games in the basement alone with a 10 year-old relative.

This is not an easy subject to raise when the abuser is the primary earner for the family; when he is well-loved, even by the son or daughter he is abusing; when he is the founder of organizations for vulnerable kids which do a lot of good; when speaking up means a crisis will ensue.

To prevent sexual abuse, we must ALL struggle with these questions. Perhaps the Penn State situation will move us a little closer to speaking up as ACTIVE  bystanders, not passive ones, looking out for the well-being of our children and those who cannot speak for themselves.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

News Human Rights

Mothers in Family Detention Launch Hunger Strike: ‘We Will Get Out Alive or Dead’

Tina Vasquez

The hunger strikers at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania are responding to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days. The women say they've been in detention with their children between 270 and 365 days.

On Monday, 22 mothers detained inside Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center, one of the two remaining family detention centers in the country, launched a hunger strike in response to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days.

The average length of stay for the 22 hunger strikers has been between 270 and 365 days, they say.

Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant rights organization Juntos and a core member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, informed the women detained inside Berks of Johnson’s recent comment via email, hoping they would want to release a statement that her organization could help amplify. Instead, the women decided to launch a hunger strike, with recent reports indicating the number of participants has risen to 26.

“When Johnson said [ICE] only detain[s] people for 20 days, he said that thinking that no one would care,” Almiron told Rewire. “Our goal has always been to make people aware of the inhumane nature of detention in general, but also that children are being locked up and moms are being held indefinitely.”

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By definition, “family detention” means the women in Berks are detained alongside their children, who range in age from 2 to 16 years old. In an open letter addressed to Johnson, the women share that their children have routinely expressed suicidal thoughts as a direct result of being imprisoned. The women allege that they are being threatened by psychologists and doctors in the detention center for making this information public, but are choosing to move forward with the hunger strike.

In part, the letter reads:

The teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape. Other kids grab their IDs and tighten them around their necks and say that they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out of here. The youngest kids (2 years old) cry at night for not being able to express what they feel … We are desperate and we have decided that: we will get out alive or dead. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: We will do it!

An August 2015 report about the Berks center by Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization, seemed to confirm what women and children detained inside of the facility have been saying since the detention center’s inception in 2001: Detention is no place for families and being imprisoned is detrimental to the health and well-being of children.

According to the Human Rights First report, detained parents in Berks experience depression, which only exacerbates the trauma they experienced in their countries of origin, and their children exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and increased aggression. Frequent room checks that take place at 15-minute intervals each night also result in children experiencing insomnia, fear, and anxiety, the report says.

Families detained inside of Berks have no real means to alleviate these symptoms because the facility does not provide adequate mental health care, according to the report. Human Rights First notes that Berks does not have Spanish-speaking mental health providers, “though the majority of families sent to family detention in the United States are Spanish-speaking and many have suffered high rates of trauma, physical and sexual violence, and exploitation.”

The organization also explains that only 23 of the total staff at Berks (or less than 40 percent) reportedly speak some conversational Spanish, “making it difficult for many staff members to effectively communicate with children and their parents.”

Berks has a history of human rights abuses. A 41-year-old former counselor at Berks was recently sentenced to between six and 23 months of jail time for the repeated sexual assault of a 19-year-old asylum-seeking mother. The young woman, along with her 3-year-old son, fled sexual domestic violence in her native Honduras. The assaults on the young mother at the detention center were witnessed by at least one of the children detained with her.

There have also been health-care issues at Berks, including the failure by the detention center to provide adequate services, according to Human Rights First.

The organization was able to collect some of the letters women detained at Berks wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with ICE’s response to their concerns. One woman, detained at Berks for four months, told ICE that her 5-year-old daughter had diarrhea for three weeks and that the detention center’s doctor failed to provide her child with any medication or other care. The woman asked for “adequate medication” for her daughter and for the opportunity to have her asylum case handled outside of detention. ICE’s response: “Thank you! You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country. Please use the medical department [at Berks] in reference to health related issues.”

Using family detention as a way to handle migrants, especially those fleeing violence in Central America, has been called inhumane by many, including activists, advocates, mental health specialists, and religious leaders. But the prolonged detainment of women and children at Berks is in violation of ICE’s own standards.

In June of 2015, Johnson announced a series of reforms, including measures aimed at reducing the length of family detention stays for families who had passed a protection screening. But then earlier this month, Johnson defended family detention, saying, “The department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the [Flores] settlement agreement in times of influx. And we’ve been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.”

But all of the 22 mothers on hunger strike at Berks have been in detention for months, according to the letter they sent Johnson.

There’s also the issue that in July, a federal appeals court ordered DHS to end family detention because it violates Flores v. Johnson, which determined that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed detention centers. Soon after, family detention centers scrambled to get licensed as child-care facilities (a battle they’re losing in Texas), but the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) licensed Berks to operate as a children’s delinquency center. In October 2015, PA DHS decided not to renew the license, which would have expired February 21, 2016, because the facility holds asylum-seeking families as opposed to only children, as the license permitted. Berks appealed the decision to not renew its license, and continues to operate until it receives a ruling on that appeal.

“Our argument from the start has been that we don’t think any of this is legal,” Almiron told Rewire in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “What is happening inside of Berks is illegal. I have no idea how they continue to operate. Right now, Berks does not have a license. It was revoked because the license they did have didn’t fit what they were doing. They also have prolonged detention. Women who are hunger striking have been there 360-something days, but then Jeh Johnson says it’s only 20 days. There is no accountability with DHS or ICE. There are numerous ways [DHS and ICE are] not accountable, but Berks is a prime example. There is no transparency and they can to change the law whenever they like.”

Neither DHS nor Berks responded to requests for comment from Rewire.

Advocates have expressed concerns that the women in Berks will be retaliated against by ICE and detention center employees because of their participation in the hunger strike. As Rewire reported, when women at Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former family detention center, launched a hunger strike in November 2015, participants alleged that ICE used solitary confinement and transferred hunger strikers to different facilities, moving them further from their family in the area and their legal counsel. ICE denied a hunger strike was even taking place.

In December 2015, men detained at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after a local judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers because of his “deteriorating health” due to dehydration. Advocates told Rewire force-feeding was being used as a form of retaliation.

Almiron said the hunger strikers at Berks have already been threatened by guards, who told the women that if they continue to hunger strike and they get too weak, their children will be taken away from them. The organizer said the letter the women wrote to Johnson shows their bravery, and their understanding that they are willing to take whatever risk necessary to help their children.

“Honestly, I think they’ve been retaliated against the moment they came to this country. The fact that they’re in detention is retaliation against their human survival,” Almiron said. “Retaliation happens in detention centers all the time, women are threatened with deportation for asking for medical care for their children. These women are incredibly strong. In my eyes, they’re heroes and they’re committed to this fight to end family detention, and so are we.”

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