In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno shows some emotion while addressing the crowd gathered at Rec Hall in State College, Pa. (CDT/Mark Johnston/AP)

Every day, my colleagues and I see the pain that silence and other incredulously bad choices beget. Our work places us on the front lines of care for child victims of abuse. Their sense of trust and safety have been eroded, if not eviscerated, by not only the predator who committed the abuse but also by the grownups who failed to protect them.

Adults who stand by and do nothing in the face of suspected or known abuse aid and abet the crime, whether intentionally or not. Not only do they betray the victim, they raise the odds that other children will fall prey to the same predator.

We must end the culture of silence. Now. Child abuse is a community problem and a national threat requiring an unwavering, proactive response. The nation’s war on terror has conditioned us to say something if we see something. America’s children deserve nothing less.

Here are four steps America should take to raise awareness and urge responsible action:

1. acknowledge the scope of the problem,

2. shatter myths by publicizing the facts,

3. emphasize every adult’s responsibility to report suspicious activity or known abuse,

4. provide guidance on how to report and prevent abuse to every adult and institution that serves children.

Child abuse occurs in epidemic proportions nationwide and across the globe. In the U.S. alone, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before their eighteenth birthdays, according to Darkness to Light, a national child sexual abuse prevention organization. These national statistics apply to our nation’s capital.

Further, there are a lot of deeply entrenched myths about child sexual abuse that are linked to harmful outcomes. One of the most deep-rooted and erroneous beliefs is that strangers pose the most danger to our children. However, fewer than 10 percent of abusers are strangers, according to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Conversely, more than 90 percent of sexually abused children know the perpetrator. The greatest risk to children comes from those they and their families know and trust.

Another powerful myth is that pedophiles look and act creepy. The fact is people who abuse children look like everyday people: our relatives, our teachers, our coaches, our friends. The predators typically go out of their way to appear trustworthy and to gain the confidence of unsuspecting children and adults.

Learning to recognize the signs of sexual abuse against children is critical to combating it. The symptoms can range from emotional to physical and are not always easily detectable. Note to parents: SLOW DOWN and give children the time from you that they need and deserve. The more attention we pay to our children’s daily routines and behavior, the better our chances of spotting variations that might indicate a problem.

Reporting suspected or known abuse is a must if we are to protect our children. All states, U.S. territories and the District have laws identifying persons who are required to report child maltreatment. Mandatory reporters include social workers, teachers and other school personnel, health care professionals, mental health professionals, child care providers, and law enforcement officers.

The District has especially strong reporting laws that expand the list of mandated reporters to include domestic violence workers and animal control officers. Beyond the legal mandate, any and everyone who witnesses or suspects child abuse has a moral obligation to report it to authorities.

Child abuse is a crime of opportunity. Pedophiles are drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children. So schools, sports leagues, faith centers, and clubs are prime targets. A child’s home is often a prime danger zone.

Our children are in crisis. The good news is we can do something to stop and prevent abuse. As we embark on the season of light and giving, long defined by children’s joy and innocence, what a fitting time to take up the charge. On December 8, the organization that I direct, Safe Shores – The D.C. Children’s Advocacy Center, is holding a public learning forum on ways to protect children from abuse. We invite you to come out and become part of the solution. For more information, contact or 202-645-4436.

The national dialogue that Penn State has sparked mustn’t stop now. As a nation, as a community,we simply must continue to talk about the ever present danger of child sexual abuse, both with our children and with other adults. We need to be on fire to protect every child and take action until every child is safe from abuse. It’s a choice. I do wonder what history will show we chose.

Michele Booth Cole is executive director of Safe Shores, a direct service nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and working directly with child victims of sexual and physical abuse in the District of Columbia.

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