One of the most important responsibilities adults have is to protect children from harm. Not just our own children, but all children in our community.

Damaged children often — though not always — become damaged adults. Some damaged adults are simply unable to fulfill their potential, overwhelmed by feelings of shame. Some remain fearful and distrusting of others.

Some lead lives filled with promiscuity, anger and violence. Our jails and prisons are full of them.

And then there are those damaged adults who inflict harm on children, perpetuating the cycle of abuse, generation after generation.

Recent revelations of Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of boys — and the complicit behavior of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno and other adults, which allowed the abuse to go on for years — have brought child abuse into the headlines.

In most newspapers across the nation, including this one, child abuse is frequently in the headlines. We know these are articles many avoid reading. The subject is an uncomfortable one. Whether the child abuser is a teacher, coach, parent, grandparent, the man who owns the candy shop or a total stranger, we don’t like to think about this kind of thing happening in our community.

But it does. It happens every day. About 20 percent of women and 15 percent of men in North America were sexually abused as children — and this doesn’t take into account cases of physical and emotional abuse and neglect.

But what can we do?

In Oregon, teachers, child care providers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics, health care providers, therapists, clergy and attorneys are “mandatory reporters,” meaning they are legally required to report suspected child abuse.

But really, it is everyone’s duty.

We can all start by paying close attention to the children around us. Children who are being physically or sexually abused may be too frightened to report their abuser, but often they give other children or adults clues that something is going on. It’s up to adults to pay attention to these clues — and to act.

If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s OK to ask questions: “do you feel safe at home?” or “has anyone touched or hurt you?” can open the conversation.

If a child confides in you, they need your calm reassurance and your full support. They need to hear that they did nothing wrong.

What you do next depends on the situation. The child’s safety must be your primary concern.

You do not need to get a full accounting of the abuse from the child — the child will need to tell their story in detail later.

Your first step should be to contact either the local Child Welfare office at the Department of Human Services, or, especially if there is an immediate threat of harm, law enforcement: local or tribal police, county sheriff or state police.

You’ll need to give as much information as you can about both the victim and the suspected abuser: names, ages, addresses, relationship, and the type and extent of abuse.

Your identity as a reporter of child abuse will remain confidential, unless you are called to testify in court about the abuse.

After you make a call to either Child Welfare (also known as Child Protective Services) or law enforcement, these professionals will assess the situation and make sure the child is safe in his or her home. If safety cannot be assured, the child may be taken into protective custody, but the preference is to keep the child with safe family members.

Law enforcement must investigate all reported cases of child abuse and send a report to the District Attorney. The DA decides whether or not to pursue criminal prosecution.

In Oregon, we have a system of child abuse assessment centers, including Guardian Care Center in Pendleton and Mt. Emily Safe Center in La Grande. These are non-profit agencies that interview suspected victims of child abuse, perform medical exams and advocate for them without subjecting the child to further trauma. Children and their non-offending family members can receive support and counseling services to help them deal with the abuse.

The bottom line: Unless all adults pay attention to the children around them and act on suspicions of abuse, that abuse will continue. The consequence of not reporting abuse: a child will be hurt, perhaps damaged for life, and may go on to damage others.

If we are to learn one thing from the Penn State scandal, it is this: Denying the existence of child abuse helps no one.

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