We have an unprecedented opening to use the Penn State sexual abuse case’s stunning lessons about ignorance, self-interest, and responsibility to examine widespread, false assumptions about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it.
The prison term handed down yesterday to former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky—despite his claims of innocence and conspiracy—will effectively keep him locked away for the rest of his life. And it puts the rest of us at a collective crossroads in our own lives.
The sentence by Judge Cleland has received a near-universal endorsement from anyone familiar with the sordid details of Sandusky’s sexual abuse of at least ten boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse against the boys, who had come under his influence while he served as a Penn State coach and as the founder of Second Mile, a program for at-risk youth.
Sandusky’s charitable works, his professions of innocence, and his goofy grin have revealed him to be a complex archetype and an easily demonized caricature of a predatory sexual manipulator. These two images respectively offer a great opportunity and a significant danger for educating adults about how to prevent future sexual abuse of children.
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We have an unprecedented opening to use this case’s stunning lessons about ignorance, self-interest, and responsibility to closely examine widespread, false assumptions about the dynamics of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. These assumptions make us all susceptible to becoming silent bystanders who, like many in Sandusky’s midst, fail to protect vulnerable children due to self-protective confusion, fear, or misunderstanding.
Or we can seek reassurance in the caricature and congratulate ourselves for putting away a man whom many equate with evil. We can punish the callous individuals and institutions we believe should have stopped Sandusky. We can consider our duty done. We can convince ourselves that “they” were the problem, and “we” would have done better. That’s the danger of this scenario.
Let’s be clear. Almost all adults are convinced they would speak up and intervene if they became aware of a child at risk of being sexually abused. But research and the experience of many survivors of sexual abuse demonstrate that more often than not, adults don’t speak up.
Why? Because we all want to view people that we know as “good” and to believe naively that we’ll recognize the “bad” ones.
One of the greatest barriers to preventing child sexual abuse is this either-or-thinking. This thinking held up Jerry Sandusky as a widely admired savior of kids and has now turned him into the bogeyman. When any of us has to choose between two extremes of saint or devil, we’re generally reluctant to re-categorize someone we respect into the negative category without absolute proof. But research shows that most people who sexually abuse children are complicated individuals with good qualities as well as a horribly destructive problem. They are not solely manipulative monsters.
To stay safe, kids need the adults in their lives to embrace that complex reality.
Only then do adults realize that it’s possible to start challenging behaviors that confuse children about what’s okay and what isn’t. That’s real prevention.
Children need adults in their lives who’ve educated themselves about warning sign behaviors and situations that may indicate an increased risk of abuse.
Children need adults who are knowledgeable about healthy sexual development and age-appropriate sexual behavior. Children need the adults in their families, programs, schools, and faith communities to speak up—and to follow up.
Showering alone with a young boy—that’s a warning sign.
Sharing a bedroom alone on a trip—that’s a warning sign.
Gifts and favors, special rules, secrets—they’re all warning signs.
Penn State coaches, administrators, and Second-Mile officials didn’t need to determine that Sandusky had bad intentions or an evil personality to take decisive action. They needed only to recognize that he was violating good, interpersonal boundariesi. Whatever his intentions, he was setting dangerous precedents. Those are the warning signs that adults can learn to recognize and use to prevent abuse— before it happens.
As satisfying as Sandusky’s long sentence may feel, preventing abuse will always have a much greater positive impact on our children, families, and communities than punishment will after the fact.
Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”
She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.
In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.
Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.
When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.
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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.
The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.
Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.
Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. collegecampuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.
It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.
I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”
Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”
But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.
But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:
I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.
From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.
Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.
Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.
Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.
She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.
It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.
Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:
I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.
Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.
In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.
Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.
What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.
Youth First, a national campaign dedicated to closing youth prisons, launched Thursday with a call to close 80 of the oldest, largest, and most notorious institutions in 39 states.
Along with a report mapping out these archaic and sprawling facilities—many of them over a century old and housing more than 100 beds—Youth First released the results of a survey conducted this year which suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans support overhauling the juvenile justice system from one of incarceration toward a spectrum of community-based rehabilitation programs.
The United States locks up an estimated 54,000 youth on any given day in a range of facilities whose names often fail to reflect the harsh realities of life inside them, according to Youth First. Colorado uses the term “youth services center”; Florida claims it houses some juvenile offenders in a “youth academy”; Iowa has a “training school for boys.” Diversity of names notwithstanding, these institutions share many commonalities: They are often geographically isolated, practice solitary confinement, utilize security hardware like barbed-wire fences, employ physical and chemical restraints, and have documented histories of physical and sexual abuse.
In a phone interview with Rewire, Youth First National Field Director Mishi Faruqee said only facilities that met a majority of such criteria were on the interactive map released today. “Almost all the facilities we included had documented reports of sexual abuse, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on sexual victimization in juvenile facilities,” she explained.
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Maltreatment in youth prisons runs the gamut from excessive use of force by prison staff, to beatings, suffocation, and sexual abuse of residents by both staff and other inmates, a 2015 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found. Some states have worse track records than others: Georgia’s youth facilities, for instance, were found to have the highest sexual abuse rates in the nation. In 2011, a resident in Georgia’s Augusta Youth Development Campus beat one of his fellow inmates to death.
That facility is just one of many included in Youth First’s report. Another is the Arkansas Juvenile and Assessment Treatment Center, which is notorious for its mistreatment of youth.
“During my 20 plus years at Arkansas Advocates I have witnessed continuous cycles of news exposes of abuse and mistreatment of youth in our youth prison,” Paul D. Kelly, a senior policy analyst at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, told Rewire in an email. “These include a series of suicides, physical and sexual abuse, broken bones and other injuries, and the lack of health, mental health, and educational services in this prison. These tragic events occur, the news upsets everyone, they fire the staff and or administrators, change management from public to private entities to run the prison, then it’s quiet for years and everyone forgets about it—and then it happens again. And again. In 2012 the Department of Justice listed our prison among those with the highest rate of sexual victimization … This information was never reported in the state press.”
In 2014, the Arkansas facility saw a 25 percent increase in assaults, fights, and self-harm, according to a local news report. “Again, we asked for this prison to be closed,” Kelly said. “It is still in operation. I must note that in 2011 the Division of Youth Services did reduce its contract with G4S [a for-profit company that operates youth prisons] from 143 beds to 100 beds. It was a small step in the right direction—but not nearly enough.”
In addition to being unsafe, youth prisons cost a lot to maintain: Youth First estimates that most states dedicate the largest chunk of their juvenile justice resources to prisons, amounting to some $5 billion every year. On average, it costs states $100,000 to detain a single juvenile for one year.
On a press call Thursday, Youth First CEO and President Liz Ryan also drew attention to high recidivism rates among juvenile offenders, and highlighted disproportionate rates of incarceration for youth of color compared to their white peers, “even when charged with similar offenses and despite the fact that they engage in similar levels of delinquency.”
States with the highest racial disparities include Utah, where Black youth comprise 24 percent of incarcerated juveniles, despite making up just 2 percent of the state’s overall youth population; Wisconsin, where Black youth account for 58 percent of all incarcerated juveniles compared to 29 percent of white youth, even though only 10 percent of the overall youth population in the state is Black, while an overwhelming 74 percent of Wisconsin’s youth population is white; and New Jersey, where Black kids represent 69 percent of juveniles locked up, even though they account for just 15 percent of the population. In comparison, whites account for 51 percent of the state’s overall youth population, yet account for just 10 percent of its incarcerated juveniles.
Da’Quon Beaver, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, addressed some of these disparities on Thursday’s call, while also recalling his personal experiences inside youth prisons.
Beaver was just 14 years old when he was charged as an adult and sentenced to 48 years. He spent several years in four facilities across the state, which housed between 280 and 300 residents.
“Anything that you can imagine happening in an adult facility is also taking place in these juvenile prisons: there are fights and riots, threats of sexual abuse, [and] residents with mental illness are not given the treatment they rightly deserved and placed in isolation.”
“But the worst abuse of all,” he said, “is being so far away from our families.”
He recalled one Christmas spent in a facility that was on lockdown due to a riot, meaning residents were denied holiday visits with their families. “I remember like it was yesterday, just crying by myself for hours and hours,” Beaver said. When the lockdown ended and visitation rights were reinstated, Beaver remembers entering the visiting room in a facility of 300 residents, and being one of just six youth to receive a visitor—he said the accumulated costs of travel, missed work, and child care for younger family members make prison visits a luxury that few can afford.
Beaver calls himself a “passionate” advocate for juvenile justice reform, and his efforts are paying off. Thanks in part to pressure from advocacy groups, Virginia is now one of three states whose governors have committed to closing large and outdated prisons. The other two states are Connecticut, under Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, and Illinois, under Republic Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Faruqee says such bipartisan support is encouraging, but believes the fight is likely to be a long one. “One of the biggest challenges is that there is a lot of money caught up in the youth prison system, so there are vested interests in seeing that system continue as it is,” she explained. While most of the facilities identified in Youth First’s report are state-run, there are also private entities that profit from juvenile incarceration, she said.
“In Florida, where 100 percent of facilities are privately run, you have a clear profit motive. But there are [also] vested interests in state-run facilities, and concerns about things like the impact of [prison closures] on local communities and fears of job losses,” she added.
Still, with the new poll showing that 54 percent of respondents favor closing youth prisons altogether, with 89 percent supporting the creation of family-centered treatment and rehabilitation plans, the pendulum of public opinion appears to be swinging toward reform.
“Part of what this national campaign is about is building the political will and broad-based political support for closing youth prisons and showing leaders that there is wide support for this initiative,” Faruqee said.