The Washington Post

Not just the Penn State coaches: Most of us look away from abuse

Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno (Matthew Stockman/Allsport)

There have been heaps of criticism, to my mind much of it deserved, piled on the Penn State hierarchy. At the same time, there is ample evidence that oftentimes those who prey on the most vulnerable continue to do so even as others begin to suspect trouble.

Last week, I wrote about a study that found doctors often demur from reporting suspected abuse. I received several e-mails after that, including two disturbing notes.

The first was from the Washington-based National Children’s Alliance, which offers tips on how to spot abuse and how to take action. A staff member there directed me to a 2008 study by Safe Horizon, the victim-advocacy group. That national telephone poll[pdf] found that when confronted with suspected abuse, barely a third reported it to authorities, the police or child protective services. A quarter of respondents who had been in situations where they suspected abuse said they did not know what to do. Another third said they did not want to get involved.

Most of us probably believe we would land in that first third.

Then I read the second e-mail, a more personal note from a reader. It brought tears to my eyes. Before I reprint it below, I want to preface it by saying it would be easy to condemn this reader’s inaction. But evidence shows it’s the way most of us would have reacted.

Here’s an excerpt of the e-mail:


“I’m one of those people who sincerely believes he’d intervene; I’m abhorred by the thought of child abuse.  I can’t imagine any greater crime.

Yet, I had an opportunity several decades ago and I failed to do anything about it.  I was living in the Chicago suburbs at the time. On my way home from work, I departed the commuter train I took every evening.

Along with hundreds of other passengers, I began my trek towards the parking lot. Oblivious to most of my surroundings, I walked past a young boy, maybe 8- to 10-years-old who was standing on the sidewalk.

He stood very still at as the commuters walked by. On his head he wore a pair of underpants that were heavily soiled in feces. I looked past him for a moment and saw a woman sitting in a car parked very close to him, watching him.  

Clearly this was his mother, or his caretaker. I walked by him, trying to make sense in my mind what I had just seen. After a few moments, it dawned on me that this young boy must have either had an innocent accident, or had soiled himself in an act of protest against his mother.

 Either way, his mother was now trying to teach him a lesson by embarrassing him in front of the hundreds of adults who saw him standing there. The damage that [this] mother must have caused his young psyche is immeasurable. It is from such devastating acts that psychopaths are born.

I walked by, got in my car and drove home. All of my fellow commuters did the same. I confess that to this day I am ashamed I didn’t stop and help him. The image of him standing there is forever burned into my memory, as is recognition of the fact that I did nothing. I am ashamed for what I did not do — intervene in a situation where a child clearly needed help. I walked away.  

I console myself by assuring that if ever again presented an opportunity to prevent child abuse, I will do something about it.  I hope I’m right.”

Have you ever witnessed abuse or possible abuse? What did you do?

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