12/08/2011 05:45 am ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

To Report Or Not To Report Abuse? That Is The (Wrong) Question

The recent child sexual abuse allegations involving Jerry Sandusky and other university officials at Penn State have opened up the floor for policy makers, journalists, and others to debate whether or not laws should require all adults to report known or suspected cases of child abuse.

This debate is not new. However, with the topic of child sexual abuse in the nation's spotlight, it may be the first time the issue has gotten this much public attention.

Currently, only 18 states have broad reporting laws that require all adults, not just professionals who work with children, to report suspected or known cases of abuse.

Proponents of broad mandatory reporting laws argue that such laws could make people more likely to report incidents that typically go unreported to law enforcement, such as those outlined in the Grand Jury indictment against Sandusky. Conversely, opponents argue that such measures inundate the child welfare system with false and unsubstantiated claims, causing overwhelmed child protection agencies to leave many victims unaided.

Although it is important to generate improved ways to detect and report child abuse, prevention efforts that center on procedures for detecting and reporting may perpetuate the tendency for adults to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to keeping children safe from abuse. After all, by the time adults are faced with the challenge of whether or not to report, in most cases, there is reason to believe that abuse has already occurred.

It may benefit more children if this debate expands to include more discussion about 'primary prevention' strategies, which are strategies that are intended to stop child sexual abuse before it occurs. Primary prevention initiatives include child abuse education programs, public awareness campaigns, parent education programs, and school and community-based programs that support families. Primary prevention approaches that emphasize strengthening families and increasing protective factors in children's lives have been found to be the most effective in combatting child abuse.

Sexual abuse education programs for children may include age-appropriate lessons that teach children how to identify situations where sexual abuse could occur, how to refuse sexual advances or break off physical contact, and how to summon help from nearby adults once inappropriate contact has begun or seems like it could occur. Studies have shown that children who participate in sexual abuse education programs may even show less self-blame than non-participants if they are subsequently sexually abused.

Immediately after the Penn State case appeared surfaced in mainstream media, the Penn State Board of Trustees issued an action plan, which proposed enhanced educational programming around the issues of child sexual abuse. It will be interesting to see how the Board executes their plan. Hopefully, there will be some form of accountability to ensure the implementation and monitoring of these initiatives.

Those of us who are not members of the Penn State community must also advocate for primary prevention efforts. We can start by working within our communities and collaborating with policy makers to encourage advocacy and the funding of primary prevention programs in order to reduce the chances of being faced with reporting.