Despite an increasing public awareness of child abuse and its impacts, officials still lack an effective way to track instances of abuse, according to one expert at Penn State University's conference today.
Penn State is hosting a two-day conference that got underway this morning in State College, where child-abuse experts and survivors shared their perspectives on how better to prevent abuse and help victims move forward.
The conference is part of the university's ongoing response to last year's criminal charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and two Penn State administrators.
Sandusky, 68, was convicted on 45 counts related to sexually abusing young boys he met through his non-profit organization, and sentenced to at least 30 years in state prison. Two school administrators charged with perjury and failing to report abuse are scheduled to stand trial in January.
"Child abuse is a tragedy for children, for families and society," Penn State President Rodney Erickson told attendees this morning. "And the time to step up the effort to stop it is now."
University of New Hampshire researcher David Finkelhor said efforts to boost public discussion of abuse have reached "a tremendous milestone," but said clear statistics on the issue are still lacking.
Approximately 68,000 cases were substantiated by child protection agencies during 2010, he said, contrasting it with a federal study in 2006 projecting that 180,000 cases were reported to community professionals that year and another estimating that 1.6 million abuse incidents involving juveniles occurred last year.
He also said communities like Penn State are not alone in dealing with incidents that can affect many more people than just the victims and perpetrators.
"Sexual abuse does a lot of collateral damage that often goes unrecognized beyond the harm to the direct victims and their families," Mr. Finkelhor said. "I think it's not uncommon in the wake of sexual abuse for whole communities to lose their sense of trust and comfort and sense of ordinariness."
Also among the day's speakers was boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, who spoke about being abused by a coach and another adult while training for the Olympics.
Mr. Leonard said he didn't speak about what happened to him for years, turning instead to alcohol abuse. He now has been sober for six years, and wrote about what happened to him in an autobiography.
"The killer is silence," he said. "When you're silent, that eats your insides, it tears at your heart. ... It's such a toxin, such a poison. It will never go away until you find it in your heart to speak up and speak out against it, or about it."
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.