11/16/2011 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

Suspected Child Abuse: Mandated Reporting or Moral Obligation?

As the Director of National Children's Alliance, the national association and accrediting body for 739 Children's Advocacy Centers across the country, I hear accounts of 260,000 victims of child sexual abuse each year. Each one is a personal tragedy for the victim, but mostly a private grief for the family. Why, then, has the Penn State sexual abuse debacle involving former Coach Sandusky created such justifiable public outrage and anguish? Is it because of the fame of the football program and the lionization of its leaders? Or, is it because given the rarity of public disclosure of the graphic and sordid nature of the victimization, we find the actual accounts painful to hear and shocking?

I hope this outrage and anguish is a result of society reaching a point in which we expect the same courage of adults to report suspected child abuse, as we expect of victims in coming forward with disclosures.

Every adult must claim responsibility for protecting children. That begins with learning the signs of abuse. These signs can be found at Educate yourself, your neighbors, your colleagues, and your family.

Teach children body safety, and about safe and unsafe touches. Even very young children can understand unsafe touches and who they can turn to for help if they ever receive a touch that makes them feel uncomfortable. However, it is not the responsibility of children to protect themselves - it is our responsibility as adults to do so.

An integral part of protecting our children is to be vigilant. Sex offenders are manipulative - they groom parents to allow increasing and unsupervised contact with their children in precisely the same way they groom their sexual abuse victims. Sex offenders fit no set profile - they are from every socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and cultural background. Sex offenders look like you and me - which means parents must be vigilant, and apply the same boundaries to everyone (friends, coaches, teachers, ministers, and family members alike). Any adult seeking to spend significant time alone with a child should raise a red flag.

The most astounding part of the Penn State disaster was not the failure to meet legal responsibilities in reporting suspected abuse, but the failure of common decency. All adults have the moral and ethical obligation to report suspected child abuse, irrespective of whether or not they have a legal obligation to do so as a mandated reporter. Fulfilling one's legal obligation, which varies by state, is not a replacement for exercising one's moral responsibility to personally report suspected abuse.

Finally, this story is one in which the courage of the victims in coming forward cannot be overstated. These young men bravely cooperated with this investigation long past the point in which they must have given up hope of justice. Imagine having one's abuse observed and nothing happening to the offender, and then being asked years later to come forward again in hope of help. One word comes to mind - courageous. Shamefully, the lack of courage on the part of those who failed to report the abuse and follow-up to protect these children also cannot be overstated.

We expect tremendous courage on the part of victims to make disclosures about their abuse, and as adults we can do no less in believing them and reporting this to alleviate their suffering. Won't you join me in being one with courage?

For more information on detecting signs of child sexual abuse, visit