Real justice for child sex abuse victims

By Anne Collier

Amid all the coverage of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sentence this week, David Finkelhor, who has been doing research about child sexual victimization for more than 30 years, offered some recommendations for what will go much farther toward reducing victimization – and restoring justice – than putting one monstrous offender away for a long time. In a CNN commentary, the sociology professor writes that, for victims in cases like Sandusky’s, what justice looks like more than anything is “to be believed, to receive an apology or to restore their sense of trust.” He adds that justice is also prevention of future victimization. How do we get there? Through awareness and education. “Law enforcement [and a whole lot of other people] believes that putting abusers away for a long time keeps the community safe. But while convictions and incarcerations do prevent some future offenses, it is naive to think that we can prosecute our way to child safety in this crime,” Dr. Finkelhor writes. A high-profile case like Sandusky’s helps with awareness, but here are four basic, powerful changes he recommends for our society’s “prevention agenda”:

* “Make abuse prevention, detection and management prominent in the curricula of graduate education in all human service fields.
* “Create off-the-shelf abuse prevention guidelines and educational materials that small and large youth-serving organizations can adopt and disseminate without a lot of expense.
* “Provide evidence-based prevention education for children and youth at all levels of the educational system.
* “Through schools, libraries and pediatricians, give parents the skills and vocabularies for talking about abuse with their kids.”

That covers K-12 schools, other youth-serving organizations, graduate education, libraries, and doctors’ offices. As for the individual level – from schools to courts to prosecutors and whoever else victims have to deal with – might we all think about justice as “a process, not just an outcome,” as Finkelhor suggested? Though a lot has already been done to make the whole process “more victim-friendly,” he writes, victims and their families still really need faster resolution, lots of communication throughout the process, protection of victims’ identity, investigations done with care, and mental health support throughout. Faster resolution not as in a race to justice, though; rather, through judges and others working from an understanding of what victims need and how they view justice. That will result in a broader, deeper sense of safety (including the psychological kind) for victims throughout a process that will become more endurable. That’s truer justice.

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