By Stevie Watson
Point Park News Service
Clinical social worker Christie Hudson, recounted the case of a coach who was arrested after a teen disclosed he had sexually assaulted her and teammates.
JoEllen Bowman, a social worker, has witnessed many cases of coaches exercising such overwhelming power over students that they eventually submitted to abuse.
Pediatrician and director of A Child’s Place at Mercy, Dr. Mary Carrasco, spoke of a childless school bus driver whom filled his house with toys to lure children into his home.
In the wake of Jerry Sandusky being sentenced to life in prison, these experts believe parents need to remain vigilant in recognizing the warning signs that coaches, teachers, faculty and others may be acting inappropriate or in fact exploiting their power and sexually assaulting children.
“Most professionals that are healthy will have a healthy boundary between themselves and the children they are working with,” explained Bowman. “Pay attention to teachers and coaches with boundary issues.”
Some of the warning signs that a coach is overstepping boundaries would be inviting children to sleep over, buying gifts, making unnecessary physical contact with students, spending time with them outside of practice and games, and giving preferential treatment.
Equally as important as taking note of signs in coaching and teaching staff, is recognizing changes in a child’s behavior. Carrasco disclosed that while some behavioral changes are a perfectly normal part of development, parents should investigate significant changes in their child’s behavior and attitude. Hudson claims children may isolate themselves, make excuses to avoid contact with a certain person, fall into depression, experience nightmares, or violate the sexual boundaries of others.
While parents should be cognizant of these red flags, they should also keep up an open and non-threatening dialogue with their children about protecting themselves and coming forward when they experience discomfort.
“I believe one of the best preventions or interventions you can do is talk to your children,” expressed Bowman.
Bowman also offered advice in helping children trust their own instincts. While respecting adults is important, a child should not have to go along with everything authority figures say, especially if it makes them uncomfortable.
She remarked, “Tell them if anyone does anything inappropriate that you will believe them.”
Carrasco posed similar advice, “If a kid doesn’t want to go with an adult, listen to them.”
Hudson also added that if a child doesn’t want to spend time with a particular adult, find out why.
Additionally, she reminds parents that they cannot trust that their children will tell them everything.
“Humans don’t like to be hyper aware of vulnerability, discomfort, or fear. You gotta ask a lot of questions,” Hudson said.
For over five years, Hudson has practiced providing therapy services to sexual abuse survivors. She sat in her small office, cross legged in a big chair. Her office is calm and welcoming, with pale blue trees climbing beige walls and matching pillows scattered across the floor and large, and a brown leather couch. A box of tissues sat on the floor in front of the couch, offering patients a tool to wipe away their sadness, anger and confusion.
Hudson completed her clinical hours at the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR) center and revealed the details of a public case from several years ago. The coach of a local high school girls’ sports team sexually assaulted students while traveling. The girls ranged from ages 13 to 17 and the coach seduced the girls, fondling, kissing, molesting, and engaging in sexual intercourse.
“There is a male coach with lots of female students just dying for his attention…Because you’re getting this attention it makes you special. It makes you chosen,” Hudson said.
For many of Hudson’s patients, tolerating the seduction is difficult because victims feel they welcomed the abuse and feel as though they and their perpetrator fostered a real relationship.
“Victims feel an alignment with their abuser, like Stockholm Syndrome. That’s why it’s damaging for so long for a lot of people,” she said.
How do sex offenders get away with these acts for so long? Bowman, Hudson, and Carrasco explained the “grooming” process that sexual predators use against children and their caretakers. They work to get close to parents to show what a great person they are and gain trust and respect before beginning to drop their boundaries with the children.
“There is great skill involved on the part of the perpetrator. There is this sort of ‘wooing’ period where a child is engaged and made to feel special,” Carrasco explained. She went on to say that activity and contact with the child slowly escalates to the point where the victim may feel trapped and unable to escape the situation.
Unfortunately, Carrasco says that many parents and caretakers disregard blatant signs, such as blood in a child’s undergarments.
She recounted the case of a police officer at a school who was caught several times in a closet with young boys, “He said he was teaching them to wrestle. Now, what would anyone be doing in a closet with a kid whose clothes are somewhat off? Why don’t people, right then evaluate the situation?”
Additionally, people will make excuses for coaches and teachers exhibiting behavior inappropriate for their position and relationship with children and teens. They will justify behavior and brush it away because they like and trust this person or respect their authority.
This was the case for Sandusky. “Because of who he was, people ignored really absurd behavior, like why is he alone in a shower with kids?” Carrasco asked.
Sex offenders groom children in a different manner than adults. According to Hudson, a perpetrator will “normalize sexual boundary crossing” by slowly showing affection such as placing an arm around a kid and move into other acts like hugging and kissing. Once they know how far they can go and the target remains silent, they will sexually assault their victim.
Sandusky may be behind bars, removing one more sexual predator and pedophile from the streets, but much work remains. Bowman describes sexual abuse as a “hidden crime”, and parents, guardians, and all other members of the community must remain attentive to the actions of people overseeing the care of their children. But they must also pay close attention to their children because “kids who are forgotten” are much easier targets, says Hudson.
“Someone just like Jerry Sandusky is operating, I’m sure, somewhere in this country abusing kids, more than one,” Hudson said. “That’s frightening and parents don’t realize how vulnerable their kids can be.”
Bowman spoke to why these crimes go unnoticed for extended periods.
“As a society, we don’t want to believe that it would happen, that there would be an offender that we’ve welcomed into our inner circle,” Bowman said.
According to Hudson, these crimes are far more prevalent than most realize, but it is uncomfortable to think about and talk about, so it slips under the radar.
“We lose track of this stuff really easily. We have a short memory in our society and if we don’t keep talking about it, it makes us extra vulnerable,” she said.