No one wins when ‘safety of the kids’ turns to abuse

  • Sat Nov 12th, 2011 5:33pm
  • News

By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist

Ed Lundberg was president of Mill Creek Little League for four years. He was in Pennsylvania when those wonderful boys played in the Little League World Series in 2008. A Heatherwood Middle School PE teacher, he’s had a 34-year career in education.

What matters most?

“It’s the safety of the kids,” Lundberg said Friday.

As league president, Lundberg ushered in rules requiring background checks for all coaches and volunteers, and also that those adults wear ID badges at games and practices.

The measures took getting used to. Some coaches thought badges might get in the way during games, and some parents bristled at being seen as suspected sex offenders, Lundberg said.

His response was clear. “It’s not about you, it’s about the kids,” Lundberg said.

Now, he said, security measures are accepted and welcomed. Badges and background checks let kids know which adults at a ballpark are safe. The system also serves as a warning to anyone looking at the league as a place to victimize a child, he said.

It’s reassuring to hear about serious steps taken by Mill Creek Little League, and no doubt countless other youth organizations, to put safety first. Since the shocking Penn State University sex abuse scandal came to light, I have been dismayed by the focus on a football coach.

Read those grand jury documents calling for criminal charges against Gerald Sandusky, who is now charged with molesting eight boys over 15 years. I don’t have much sympathy for Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State coach fired last week along with the university president.

“Everybody was so caught up in the name recognition — Coach Paterno. I hope nobody loses sight of the poor kids,” Lundberg said. “So often, victims are pushed aside. These are real people, real lives.”

Lucy Berliner and Barbara Boslaugh Haner don’t see the Penn State nightmare as a sports story. They have spent their careers helping victims of sexual abuse.

Haner is a family nurse practitioner at the Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse in Everett. And Berliner is director of the Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. Both have worked extensively with people molested as children. They know the damage is lasting.

“A huge amount of stuff occurs and becomes a lifelong struggle,” Haner said. Depending on how old a victim is, but particularly with teens, Haner said there may be confusion over sexual orientation.

Some victims grow up to become abusers themselves, or perpetrators of domestic violence. “It’s possible. That’s not a defining point, but it affects their whole outlook on relationships,” Haner said. “We also see an increase in substance abuse with people who have been sexually abused, and an increase in mental health issues and the risk of suicide.”

Berliner is glad that at least Penn State took quick action when the charges became public. “It only took them about a week to clean house. Many other organizations have not, when they became fully informed,” said Berliner, who has been on a review board of sexual abuse issues in the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

“I think they learned a lesson,” Berliner said of archdiocese, which has dealt with priest sex-abuse allegations. “I hope that everybody would have learned the lesson by now.”

Berliner said the reactions by some to Paterno’s firing at Penn State is a textbook example of why a child victim might not speak out, especially if an abuser holds a position of power.

“This is why this kind of abuse can go on for years, why it would be next to impossible for a child to come forward in a circumstance with very powerful, influential people,” Berliner said.

She was cautious when asked about warning signs of abuse. “Plenty of people are being abused and there are no warning signs,” Berliner said.

The biggest red flag, she said, is when an adult shows an unusual interest in a child. “They cultivate a private, personal relationship. And the parent is discouraged from being involved,” Berliner said. “That is out of the ordinary. Who does that?”

Haner isn’t sure about Pennsylvania laws. In Washington, teachers, medical professionals and police are required by law to report their suspicions that a child is being abused. The nurse praised Snohomish County’s police, prosecutors and other agencies for aggressive actions to prevent sexual abuse and hold perpetrators accountable.

As a parent, I realize how much trust I have placed in so many adults.

I have put the lives of my children into the hands of day care providers, teachers, coaches, clergy and camp counselors. I sent a teenage girl off to Scotland for a drama festival, and one chaperone was a young man, the school’s 20-something-year old music teacher.

Parents have little choice but to trust people who guide our kids — and to trust that institutions employing those adults are diligent.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.