Several months ago when the Jerry Sandusky scandal was the breaking news of the day, a Penn State law school graduate and I offered recommendations to the new president and board of trustees.
The recommendations were deeper and more sustainable than what we were to expect from the university or the Freeh investigation.
What we offered the university was the opportunity to identify with an action plan that would benefit the larger Penn State community, other academic centers in the U.S. and, hopefully, all American children.
The recommendations would reach into the heart of the key issue of child abuse and the more global issue of violence toward children. It would be the beginning in addressing the No. 1 issue revealed in the investigation that there was a striking lack of empathy for child abuse victims by the most senior leaders of the university.
Federal and state reporting requirements, such as the Clery Act mandates, were in place and were ignored. Penn State staff reported that despite the universitys child protection policies, volunteer coaches and counselors were slipping through the cracks.
In other words, the campus environment was a disaster waiting to happen. This Pennsylvania incident became as notorious because of the adults involved and the megalomaniac attitude toward college sports as the harm inflicted on the children.
Unfortunately, what happened in Pennsylvania is happening every day in America. Is the Penn State incident more or less serious than the child abuse within the Catholic Church; at the camps of the Boy Scouts or in many of our schools and communities?
DeWayne Wickham, of USA Today, in the recent article Penn State case bad, but sex abuse worse, offers the opinion of the grand jury that the deliberate actions of the highest church official allegedly involved in the case during his tenure as archbishop endangered thousands of children in the Philadelphia archdiocese.
The bishop and his monsignor lost their moral compass. They lost their ability to appreciate the basic human rights of a child. They lacked the basic virtue of empathy.
The Penn State reports and investigations continue to be an emotional, administrative and legal response but not necessarily the ideal, sustainable, socially minded call to action. Unfortunately, the depth and magnitude of avoidance and neglect of child abuse does not begin or end with our churches, community organizations or centers of academics and sports. It is a much larger issue in America.
The motto of the American Academy of Pediatrics is dedicated to the health of all children. It is an organization with a worldwide membership of incredibly well-trained professionals dedicated to the health and well-being of all children. The organization, however, has demonstrated a tendency to avoid the more complex issues of children as innocent victims of violence and war.
The results of a Pennsylvania-based study, presented at an American Public Health Association national meeting, commented on this concerning trend of human behavior.
There were two components to the study. AAP newsletters and policy statements were reviewed to identify any language commenting on the issue of war and children.
Pennsylvania pediatricians were also surveyed. The data revealed the following:
In reviewing the 2004-2005 AAP newsletters and the 2003-2006 AAP policy statements there was not a single, specific comment, statement or reference regarding the prevention of pediatric deaths or any comment or opinion on the plight of children in a wartime setting.
Regarding the survey of Pennsylvania pediatricians, only 5 percent of the physicians surveyed answered affirmatively when asked, Do you feel the AAP takes a strong political advocacy position on war and its effects on children worldwide?
Though about 60 percent of the surveyed physicians thought the AAP should formally address the issue of war and its effects on children, 35 percent said we should not.
Many countries addressed corporal punishment, but not so the U.S. Each year more than 200,000 U.S. children are victims of corporal punishment, which is still allowed in 19 states. Of these, 20,000 children require medical attention each year, and this is just from physical punishment taking place in a school setting.
Add this to the thousands of documented U.S. child abuse and pedophile cases and, yes, we have a problem much larger than the media headlines of the Sandusky moment.
Thirty-one nations have banned corporal punishment everywhere; 100 nations ban corporal punishment in schools, and the U.S. has no laws banning corporal punishment at home. Until 2005, the death penalty was permitted for American children younger than 18.
The situation is even deeper and more concerning in the U.S. It goes to the highest levels of government and represents what our politicians, legal experts and we, as a democratic society, allow to exist: The United States and Somalia are the only two United Nations member countries that have not yet signed the 1989 Convention of the Rights of Children.
Thus, our inability to truly protect the rights of children is deeply imbedded in our national psyche. We react, judge, change old laws and create new ones. And as Penn State has done, new policies and programs are born.
What is missing, however, is any legitimate discussion on the rights of children.
The Freeh report says the Penn State culture must change.
But U.S. culture needs careful and meaningful attention, too. Without a child human rights framework of practice, guidelines and legislation, the best community and academic organizations can do is reorganize, reshape and interpret existing policy and law that historically have not been able to protect our children.
What we recommended to Penn State was the establishment of An Institute for the Study of Human Rights of Children: A Meaningful Response by PSU. There is very little scholarly work taking place in America on the rights of children. Compared with Europe, the U.S. effort on the subject is minimal.
As a viable response to the neglectful actions by the Penn State board, sports department, administration and multiple layers of the community, the Freeh report recommends that an ethics council be established at Penn State.
Unfortunately, the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute was absent during the Sandusky era of abuse. The Freeh report recommended the institute as a resource to establish a safer environment at the university. Of the five institute programs, two have been established to study ethics in education and leadership.
Though no doubt there are excellent scholars leading and supporting these programs, why did they not have some positive presence in the university affairs and practices to keep children safe?
An ethics council will only be as good as the foundation of laws and beliefs it has to work from.
Hospital-based ethics committees are only as effective as the current ethics-minded administration or the latest media-driven regional and national issue of the moment prompts them to be. The issue is deeper and broader in this country. It is a human rights issue.
A broad-based, ongoing politically supported discussion on child human rights is absent in our legislative halls, community centers, health care and educational systems.
As stated in our recommendations to Penn State, a basic, holistic and scientific human rights approach will better suit the university as it attempts to confront and rectify recent events and prevent future occurrences.
We can only hope for more. Our children deserve more.
Dr. Matthew G. Masiello is the director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Windber Research Institute in Windber. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.