A Message of Hope at the Child Sexual Abuse Conference

October 31, 2012 at 4:34 pm 4 comments

Elizabeth Smart tells her story on day two of Penn State’s Child Sexual Abuse Conference. Photo by Ralph Wilson/AP Photo.

In person, Elizabeth Smart is petite and pretty. The 24-year-old college student spoke softly and slowly, gesturing gracefully and maintaining her composure even when describing the details of her tragic story.

At age 14, Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint and held prisoner for nine months, during which she was repeatedly sexually abused by her male abductor. She was rescued in March 2003.

“Hope is what saw me through my kidnapping and helped me survive,” she told the crowd of more than 400 Tuesday at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. “That’s why we’re all here. Hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can turn something terrible into something wonderful, hope that we can change the tragedy at Penn State into a platform that will change the community and the entire nation.”

It was an appropriate message to serve as the finale to Penn State’s Child Sexual Abuse Conference, held Monday and Tuesday.

When we planned to attend the sold-out, two-day conference, Senior Editor Lori Shontz and I knew that, considering the subject matter, those two days wouldn’t be easy. And we were right. Hearing renowned experts talk about patients they’ve worked with and listening to victims, like Smart, recount their own stories was emotional—and eye-opening. Lori and I agreed that the statistics we’d been hearing since November (that 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are victims of sexual abuse) had never seemed quite so real.

Some highlights:

— David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center, talked about what a bad job we, as a society, do of tracking data about child sex abuse. He showed a list of “countable” items, things that are tracked by various agencies, which included: cholera cases, St. Louis encephalitis, Q fever “plus 60 other infectious diseases you’ve never heard of.” And then he showed a list of things that no one counts: Total number of child sex offenders known to authorities. How many teachers or coaches or staff/volunteers for youth-serving organizations who have committed child sex abuse. How many convicted sex offenders there are in the population or in prison. Said Finkelhor: “This problem deserves better numbers.”

—Ernie Allen, co-founder of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, said there are two myths that he has to keep debunking: that of the stranger, and that of the dirty old man. Often, he said, people who abuse children “show deep commitment to helping those in need.”

Allen encouraged the crowd to empower children to speak out. “In our society, we send a subconscious message to children: They’re just kids. They don’t know much.” He said this prevents some children from talking about being abused. “Teach your children to communicate. The old saying is that children should be seen and not heard. I suggest it’s time to change that: Children should be seen AND heard.”

Julie Larrieu, professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University, discussed her experiences treating very young victims (age 0-5) of sexual abuse. Though difficult to watch at times, video clips of treatment sessions showed patients make progress through child-parent psychotherapy—a method that helps children and parents recognize trauma and rebuild trust.

Margaret Hoelzer, a two-time Olympic swimmer, was sexually abused by a friend’s father at age 5. She talked candidly about the lasting effects of abuse on her sense of self-worth. “I had to become an Olympian just to feel worthy—to feel good enough.”

Hoelzer also talked about her parents’ response when she divulged her abuse as a teen. “My mom knew she couldn’t freak out,” she says. “She knew I’d shut down if I saw her panic. She stayed calm and let me keep talking.” Hoelzer encouraged all parents to do the same.

—Chris Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor.org, talked about the stigma still attached to male victims and the lack of resources for men—especially because there are marked differences in the ways women and men cope and recover. Men, he explained, disclose their abuse in stages, sometimes over the course of years. “Men need those safe spaces where they’re given the opportunity to come forward.”

Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing legend, recalled feeling isolated and alone after his abuse. For decades, he says he was haunted by the memories until he finally told his story. “I would be dead if I didn’t have the courage to finally stand up and say, ‘Ray, it’s OK.’ It’s OK to talk about these things. As we work together, as we collaborate, we will find a way to end this thing.” (For more on Leonard’s talk, check out this piece from StateCollege.com.)

Obviously, the information from the past two days is dense and requires some unpacking. We’re planning to cover this topic more extensively in future issues of The Penn Stater, and we’re open to your suggestions on how to do it. Email us at pennstaterletters@psu.edu.

Mary Murphy, associate editor

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephanie  |  October 31, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Minor correction to a great article: It’s Margaret Hoelzer, not Hoezler.

  • 2. Mary Murphy  |  October 31, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    You’re right. I just updated the post to correct my mistake. Thanks for reading!

  • 3. Jill Shockey  |  November 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Those who want to find out more about the conference are strongly encouraged to visit http://protectchildren.psu.edu/agenda for direct YouTube links of full-length videos of all recording-permitted sessions, including the speech by Sugar Ray Leonard.

  • 4. geoa201  |  November 2, 2012 at 11:22 am

    I think it was very good that the conference was held at Penn State; however, I do not think it was right that the Board of Trustees used the event to gain publicity. Holding a special meeting right before the conference to announce approval of lawsuit settlements shows a lack of respect for all victims of abuse. It was no more than a pathetic publicity stunt used by the Penn State Board of Trustees!

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