"I have 10 souls in my pocket -- childhoods ravaged, memories destroyed by this man. You can't give back the pieces of their souls that he took."
That's what lead prosecutor Joseph McGettigan said on the final day of the Jerry Sandusky trial, just before jurors began deliberations on 48 counts of child sex abuse. He's right. Even if Jerry Sandusky is sent to prison for the rest of his life, that doesn't undo the alleged abuse these 10 men say they suffered. Yes, a guilty conviction would give them a sense of closure, a sense of justice, but it doesn't go back in time and stop this alleged tragedy from ever occurring.
So how do we move forward now, after hearing about the nightmares these men say they lived as little boys, stories of screams that went unanswered, abuse that went unnoticed? When the verdict comes in, do we watch the media coverage of it, then turn the channel, move on to the next big story? No. Just as those 12 jurors now have a responsibility to give these alleged victims justice, so too does each of us.
The only bright spot in this tragic case is the spotlight it shed on the issue of child sex abuse and the awareness that was raised by the high-profile nature of the case. Jennifer Marsh, director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline, told me on The CrimeLine that when the accusations against Jerry Sandusky began in November, she saw a more than 50 percent spike in the number of calls. Similarly, when the trial began, she saw a 30 percent jump in the number of calls. She says the strength these accusers showed when testifying on the stand has inspired other survivors to come forward and break their silence.
Not only has the case inspired survivors, but also witnesses. "It's been an educational process for people," Marsh said. "We've had people through the hotline who say, 'I think there is something going on, but I'm not really sure,' people speaking up, people as a community realizing this is their responsibility."
She says there are many lessons to be learned from the trial: victims are not alone, it's not their fault, there is help and there are resources out there, and those who suspect abuse have a responsibility to speak up. My hope is that once the verdict is in, the lessons learned from this trial are not forgotten. My call to action to all of us who have been following the trial is to continue to raise awareness and to try to prevent child sex abuse. How? Education.
We must educate children about the danger of child sex abuse, the signs, how to stop it and how to speak up. Erin Merryn, a survivor of child sex abuse, has toured the country emphasizing the need for each and every state to pass Erin's Law, which would require schools to educate children about sex abuse in a child friendly manner. "Growing up in Illinois public schools every year I was educated with my classmates on tornado drills, fire drills, bus drills, stranger danger, and learned the 8 steps to say "NO" to drugs through D.A.R.E. Where was the drill on how to escape a child molester? Where was the lesson plan on sexual abuse, safe touches, and safe secrets," Merryn asks in her online petition. Erin's Law has been passed in five states. Let's hope the Sandusky trial inspires more people to write their legislators to pass the law nationwide.
We must also educate parents about the warning signs of sex abuse and how to prevent it, including within their own circle of family and friends. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is a nationwide campaign for child abuse and neglect prevention. The campaign is urging Congress to protect and expand funding for evidence-based home-visiting services. These home-visiting programs focus on the range between prenatal care to preschool age and send specialized paraprofessionals to the homes of low-income, first-time young mothers. Home visitors provide guidance to young parents and help families address head-on the most prevalent reasons for child abuse and neglect. "This case is an urgent reminder that all of us have a responsibility to protect children from harm," said Natasha O'Dell Archer, national director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. "We can and must do more to prevent cases of abuse wherever and whenever we can. The research shows that we can start doing that by ensuring that at-risk families have access to voluntary home visiting with proven ability to help prevent child abuse."
As the saga of the Jerry Sandusky trial comes to a close, the fight against child sex abuse is far from over. These are just some steps we can take to try to fight back: raise awareness and educate. For more on lessons learned from the trial, watch this week's CrimeLine.
Follow Mari Fagel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MariFagel