Inaugural conference on protecting children opens to sold-out crowd

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Despite the rain, Penn State’s first national conference on the topic of child sexual abuse kicked off today (Oct. 29) to a sold-out crowd. The two-day “Child Sexual Abuse Conference: Traumatic Impact, Prevention and Intervention” is being held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel on the University Park campus.

For the conference, Penn State convened some of the nation’s top experts in child sexual abuse and child trauma research, prevention and treatment for a public forum on this nationwide problem.

Doris MacKenzie, director of the Justice Center for Research at Penn State, and one of the organizers of the conference, opened the conference by introducing Penn State President Rodney Erickson, who spoke about the how the conference, and several other University initiatives to address the problem of child sexual abuse, came to be.

“The origins for this conference go back to one year ago, in the weeks following the release of the Jerry Sandusky grand jury presentment,” said Erickson. “During that time, our thoughts and hearts went out to the victims of these horrific crimes, and as a community we resolved to move forward by using all that is right about Penn State to tackle what is an insidious, hidden and epidemic issue."

“The statistics about child sexual abuse are frighteningly high – one in four girls and one in six boys abused before the age of 18. In 80 percent of the cases the abuse is perpetrated by a family member or trusted friend,” he added. “It deeply saddens and disturbs me to think of these children -- most of whom never tell anyone, even when asked. But that may be starting to change.

“Child abuse is a tragedy for children, for families and for society, and the time to step up the effort to stop it is now. For our part at Penn State, we believe we can contribute to this effort by doing what we do best; that is teaching, research and service. This conference is one of our many initiatives to serve that end.”

The first presenter of the day was David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory, professor of sociology, and university professor at the University of New Hampshire. He has been studying the problems of child victimization, child maltreatment, and family violence since 1977 and is considered the foremost expert on childhood victimization, with a special emphasis on childhood sexual abuse. Finkelhor’s presentation is available on WPSU’s YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-fViw7Uuxs online.

“I want to acknowledge before I begin that members of this community really have been through an ordeal in the last year, year and a half,” said Finkelhor at the beginning of his session. “Sexual abuse does a lot of collateral damage that is often unrecognized beyond the harm to direct victims and their families."

“I think it’s not uncommon in the wake of sexual abuse for whole communities to lose their sense of trust, comfort and sense of ordinariness about just so many things – relationships that they have, the way in which things get done – they go through a period of questioning about how to deal with a lot of things that they didn’t really think about beforehand,” he added. “There’s often also a lot of rancor, about how this could have happened, how things got handled – you’re not alone in having encountered these things. So I’m glad to be here, I’m eager to talk to you about what you’ve been through; I’m also honored to be part of a process that you’ve chosen to try and heal with and learn from, given the ordeal that you’ve been through.”

In his talk, “Overview and Epidemiology of Child Sexual Abuse,” Finkelhor covered a broad overview of the current state of child sexual abuse, including how much abuse is happening worldwide and why it is underreported; risk factors that make children vulnerable to perpetrators; the dynamics between offenders and victims; important misconceptions about child sexual abuse that shape public perception and policy; his own logic model for promising prevention strategies; large-scale data studies that show an encouraging decline in the overall problem; and where we should go from here.

Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and adjunct faculty at Northwestern University Medical School, was scheduled to speak on the topic of “Trauma Impact of Sexual Abuse on Preschoolers and Young Children, with a Special Emphasis on Brain and Neurobiological Impact,” but was unable to attend.

The conference continues through Tuesday, Oct. 30. Visit http://protectchildren.psu.edu for further information, including upcoming live-streamed sessions.

Last Updated October 30, 2012