Like everyone else, I watched in horror last week as the events unfolded in the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State. For parents of young children, it is unfathomable to contemplate something like this happening to your own child. Unfortunately, it is more common than we’d like to believe.
Statistics show that around 15 percent of children are sexually abused before the age of 18. For girls, it’s more like 30 percent.
And for developmentally disabled girls? 83 percent.
83 percent? 83 percent.
Since this is a Patch opinion article, and not a research white paper, I won’t be footnoting the source for that statistic. But I could. It’s a statistic that I’ve heard thrown around a lot since I became the parent of a developmentally disabled child. We get kind of numbed to this kind of bad news, as it seems like every negative statistic is up there in the 80 percent range. The chance that your daughter will be sexually abused. The odds that your marriage will end in a divorce. The proportion of your waking hours that you spend worrying about your daughter being abused and your marriage ending in divorce.
In this case, I did a Google search to try to confirm that this particular 83 percent statistic was based on actual research. And there it was. A study, looking all scholarly and official and…sickening. I know that studies like these can be dubious, and it’s not hard to imagine that accurate data on child sex abuse of the disabled could be difficult to obtain. I’m not nearly smart enough to read the entire study, analyze the methodology, and shoot holes in it. But let’s face it, even if that figure is off by half it should still be enough to make your head spin off of your neck and explode.
I know that any number greater than zero is an absolute tragedy, but 83 percent? That’s like everybody. When my daughter is having a play date with one of her special needs pals, does that mean I have to assume that pretty much both of them will be the victim of sexual abuse at some point in their lives? In our friend’s special needs Girl Scout troop of six girls, FIVE of them will be sexually assaulted?
If there can be an upside to the scandal at Penn State, it would be the increased awareness that it has sparked around child sex abuse. People are sharing information about warning signs and prevention all over the internet. One of the resources that I was pointed to is a website called Savvy Parents Safe Kids, which lists ten rules for safety, including things like not keeping secrets from your parents, getting permission before going anywhere in a car, and not accepting things from anyone that you don’t know.
Scanning through that list, it’s easy to see why the statistics are astronomically higher for the developmentally disabled than for typically developing children. Fully half of the 10 items require some level of communication skills: to say “no” to the predator or to tell your parents or ask permission from them.
But even disabled children that can speak often lack the judgment to know something is awry. The tenth rule struck me the most: “Always pay attention to my own inner voice, especially that ‘uh-oh’ feeling.” Is my daughter capable of having the “uh-oh” feeling before it’s way too late?
Clearly the disabled are preyed upon more commonly precisely because they are less capable of “telling” or understanding that what is being done to them is wrong. This means that they are even more dependent on the eyes, ears, and moral compass of the adults around them to ensure that they are protected. You know, like the EXACT OPPOSITE of what happened at Penn State.
My daughter won’t be playing football for a Big Ten team anytime soon, but she may at various points in her life be dependent on the same types of authority figures – school personnel, coaches, camp counselors, work supervisors, etc. – that failed those boys in Pennsylvania.
Don’t be a Mike McQueary. If you suspect child sex abuse, do everything you can to stop it. Intervene, report, be there for the child. An old adage says that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. If these statistics are anywhere near accurate, we will be judged very harshly indeed.