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A Failure of Epic Proportions

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The Urban Dictionary says that an epic fail is a "mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an individual or group." It is often used to describe a comical situation, but there is absolutely nothing funny about the Freeh Report on the Jerry Sandusky case.

I can't remember how many rants I had while reading the full report. There were many. The Sandusky Eight and likely many, many more were quite simply, failed -- epically failed -- and not just on a single occasion. Countless individuals over a decade had an opportunity to step forward and speak out for these young victims: coaches, janitors, administrators, law enforcement professionals, child services professionals, prosecutors. The lack of action, the fear of going against institutional legendry, and the ongoing and pervasive "looking the other way" is simply preposterous and unfathomable.

We can and must do better for our children. In my work in a Children's Advocacy Center where I focus on education and outreach, it is all too common that we see institutional lockdowns with internal hand-wringing and administrative investigations instead of transparency and timely reporting to authorities leading to a proper criminal investigations. Instead we see cowering and fear of making waves rather than the courage to save the soul of a child. It's hard not to get jaded. Almost nothing is surprising anymore. But at times like these, when we know there are best practice operational models to help child victims, we are particularly outraged.

Children's Advocacy Centers across the United States offer multidisciplinary solutions to support the prevention, investigation and prosecution of child abuse in our communities. A select few of these agencies also excel nationally in the area of training.

I stopped on page 45 of the Freeh report and had a particular rant. In 1998, law enforcement professionals were hiding and listening to an interaction between a mother and Jerry Sandusky, where Sandusky admitted to showering with her son as well as other boys. That jaw-dropping statement was followed by another:

The law enforcement officers did not interview Sandusky at the time. Had they been better trained in the investigation of child sexual abuse they would have interrogated Sandusky directly after his confrontation with the boy's mother. A timely interview with Sandusky may have elicited candid responses such as identification of other victims.

I had to go back and re-read that paragraph several times. It appears that law enforcement, a child services agency and possibly even prosecutors had Sandusky in 1998. Did they hear his admission and not know what to do? Or did they hear it and then choose not to act? The first mistake would be tragic, the second one unforgivable.

As someone who oversees internationally-recognized training for those who fight crimes against children, known as the premier event of its kind in the field, I can tell you that the first budget to get cut when times are tough is the training budget. Every year, we see decreases in budgets resulting in thousands of professionals in law enforcement, prosecution, child protection and therapy who miss the opportunity to learn best-practice investigative techniques, how to compassionately respond to child victims, and how to help these children heal.

These are crimes like no other and require extreme sensitivity and specialized training.

In my fantasy world, leaders of corporations and individuals who truly care about children will stop saying that "children are our future" and instead will provide support for their local law enforcement and other professionals who fight crimes against children to receive specialized training. That is, however, just a fantasy. What we see in reality is that few step forward in this way, and expert training is relegated to the bottom of the priority list in many agencies, resulting in partially trained or untrained professionals out there dealing with these highly sensitive cases, coping as best as they can. The consequences of untrained professionals trying to muddle through the complexities of child sexual abuse cases are only too apparent. Just ask any of Sandusky's victims. We can and must do better.

To be sure, no training in the world will replace an individual's search of their moral interior and decision to act courageously in the best interests of a child even in the face of legends and institutional denial. But it's a start.

This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project.

Ellen Magnis is Chief of External Affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas. This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Texas Woman's University.