Neil Jafee, the legal counsel and co-producer of the film Pursuit of Truth: Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Seeking Justice wrote an excellent article which is displayed below. The fact that sexual assaults occurring on campuses and in the military are finally being recognized by the President and Vice President is wonderful. Mr. Jaffee asks, though, when will the sexual assault of children and its impact on adult survivors be recognized as well?
It was only fitting that the First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault (the “Report”) was issued in April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The Presidential Memorandum establishing the Task Force noted that “[w]e have the capacity to stop sexual assault, support those who have survived it, and bring perpetrators to justice.” The Report announced a series of actions to be taken by the federal government to address the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses. The steps are intended to help school’s identify the scope of the problem, prevent such assaults from occurring, and respond effectively when a student is assaulted.
The Task Force also launched a website to support assault survivors and track schools’ enforcement efforts, as well as a public service announcement featuring President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and a number of celebrities. When the Report was released, the Vice-President, whose Office co-chaired the Task Force, stated that, “[colleges] and universities can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend rape and sexual assault doesn’t occur on their campuses. We need to provide survivors with more support and we need to bring perpetrators to more justice, and we need colleges and universities to step up.” The government’s recent focus on sexual assaults against students parallels efforts made within the last year or so by the Administration and Congress to curb sexual assaults in the military. As to both categories of victims, the government actions are much needed and long overdue.
But what about childhood victims of sexual assaults? The Presidential Memorandum made no mention of sexual assaults against children, notwithstanding the epidemic nature of child sexual abuse in this country, where it is estimated there are over 40 million adult survivors. Even though April was Child Abuse Awareness Month the release of the Report did not cause the Administration to make any connections between the issues involving sexual assaults against students and sexual assaults against children. To paraphrase Vice-President Biden’s statement, the federal government “can no longer turn a blind eye or pretend” rapes and sexual assaults of children do not occur. The Administration’s recognition of the need to support survivors and bring perpetrators to justice applies equally to adult survivors of child sexual abuse and their abusers. And yes, it is time for the government “to step up” and take action to prevent child sexual abuse from occurring, to support adult survivors, and to reform a legal system that presently favors abusers over the abused.
To be sure, the government’s targeting of sexual assaults committed against students and military personnel is a very positive development in the ongoing movement to assist all victims of sexual crimes. Any effort by the government to shine the light on victims of sexual abuse raises public consciousness of the issue generally and helps build support for all such victims. Given that victims of childhood sexual assault in particular often remain in the dark and are reluctant to report the crimes against them, we applaud any actions that will foster public understanding and support of sexual crime victims. So to be clear, it is not my purpose to criticize in any way the recent steps taken by the government to battle sexual assaults of students and military personnel.
Instead, my intent is to underscore that childhood victims of sexual abuse deserve the same attention and the same support for their right to legal redress against their perpetrators. The government’s silence in the face of numerous studies and documented cases demonstrating that the legal rights of survivors of child sexual abuse have been, and continue to be, largely ignored or discarded by our justice system, speaks volumes. The silence is deafening. The time has come, no, the time is long past due, for the federal government to turn its attention to the rights and needs of childhood victims of sexual crimes.
Common threads run through all sexual assault cases – the daunting obstacles that discourage survivors from reporting their abuse, the terrible trauma suffered by survivors, the legal system’s flawed handling of survivor cases, to name only a few. But it is beyond dispute that children are the most vulnerable of all sexual assault victims and studies have shown that they suffer the most serious, long-lasting effects of traumatic sexual abuse. Therefore, the federal government must broaden the scope of its attack against sexual assaults to include childhood sexual abuse.
This action can take many forms, e.g., the creation of a separate task force to protect children from sexual crimes; the development of a public service campaign to raise awareness as to the horrific scope of the problem; and the enactment of legislation mandating legal reforms that will have the effect of encouraging survivors to report their abuse as early as possible and that will restore balance to the scales of justice by providing survivors a fair chance to obtain legal redress against their perpetrators. A White House Conference on Children – the last one was held more than 40 years ago – could be devoted to the discussion and development of best practices to address this multi-faceted societal scourge. That would be a compelling first step.
We often say that children are our nation’s best hope for the future but as a society, our actions often do not live up to our words. We can, and we must, do better to protect children from sexual predators. A child’s right to be safe from physical and psychological harm perpetrated upon them by adults is a basic human right. And the preservation of that right is the most fundamental responsibility of a moral government and its people.