12/23/2011 12:28 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

Taking Action To Protect America's Children

On December 13, I had the honor of participating in an important moment for the child advocacy field. As one of six panelists to testify in front of the United States Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), Subcommittee on Children and Families, I joined my fellow child abuse intervention experts in shining a light on issues surrounding child sexual abuse in our country.

The purpose of the hearing, titled "Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse: Protection, Prevention, Intervention, and Deterrence," was to examine how well our federal laws, such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, are working to protect our nation's children from abuse and neglect. The hearing also examined related issues, including the prevalence of child sexual abuse committed by adults in entrusted organizations, the effect abuse has on children and their families, why adults may fail to report known or suspected abuse, and local and state efforts aimed at protecting, preventing, intervening, and deterring child abuse.

I, along with my fellow panelists, spoke on the need for improved reporting mechanisms, as well as enhanced training for mandated reporters of abuse. Tragically, it has been reported that while 95% of Americans express deep concern about child abuse, only one-third of adults actually contacted authorities when confronted with abuse (see: Safe Horizon Hope Shining Bystanders and Child Abuse Survey).

In the wake of the Sandusky case and others involving adults in a position of trust, Americans are asking, "Why don't people report abuse they see or suspect?" Generally, adults do not report abuse because they do not know the signs they should be looking for, or are confused about the process for reporting. There also exists a general fear surrounding what will happen to the child and the family once abuse is reported.

These are not insurmountable problems. Widespread training and public awareness campaigns should be initiated to educate the 243 million American adults whose individual and collective responsibility it is to protect our nation's children. This task is a unique responsibility of the federal government, the only entity with the overarching power and resources to inspire a national audience to take action.

It is also important to note that while barriers to reporting abuse are finally receiving well-warranted attention as a result of recent high profile cases, reducing these alone will not save children. Improved child abuse reporting must be paired with equally strong intervention methods based on best practices in the field.

Children's Advocacy Centers and multidisciplinary teams around the country have been at the forefront of this work, implementing a proven model of comprehensive care, investigation, and prosecution, while ensuring abused children receive needed medical and mental health care.

Sadly, this effective response is not available to all of America's children. There are still more than 1,000 counties in the U.S. in which abused children have no access to these services.

We call on Congress to finish the good work it established with the creation of the Victims of Child Abuse Act (1990) by expanding these services to all of America's Children. While resources are needed to implement such a widespread effort, it is important to remember that a number of improvements to the system could also be made at little or no cost, including:

  • Improving our nation's ability to assess the scope of the problem by standardizing definitions and data collection methodologies for state child abuse statistics annually reported to the federal government.
  • Collecting crimes against children data and reporting this separately from adult crime statistics in the information law enforcement annually reports to the FBI.
  • Re-examining and modifying existing confidentiality laws to allow for information sharing among intervention professionals.
  • Requiring protocols that ensure coordination among members of multidisciplinary intervention teams and civil and criminal legal proceedings.

It is our collective responsibility to protect children from abuse. And when we are unable to protect our children, we must report abuse and ensure victims receive the services they need to heal and lead healthy, productive lives.

I ask readers to join me in calling on Congress to address this issue and consider these and other solutions to reducing and addressing child abuse in America. Should you have interest in submitting your own recommendations or supporting ours, the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Children and Families will be accepting written testimony from the public through December 28.

The health and well being of our nation's children depends on the protection we as a society are willing to provide them. In turn, that requires each of us to take action to protect children.