2 years after Sandusky scandal broke, changes made, but more needed, advocates say

mdawson@centredaily.comNovember 10, 2013 

Two years have passed since the horrific allegations of child abuse against Jerry Sandusky sent shockwaves through Penn State and State College, and many parts of life here look or feel different.

There’s a new football coach on the sidelines of Beaver Stadium.

Penn State is searching for a new president to lead the university out of the scandal and unite the divided alumni community.

The university cracked down on access to what had been community gathering spots like Rec Hall or the IM Building in the hope of keeping children safer.

Lawsuits have been filed to right what was wrong, the Second Mile charity only exists as a legal entity, and the Joe Paterno statue and shrine that used to flank Beaver Stadium is gone.

What hasn’t changed, and what is needed, according to some advocates and activists, is stronger community support of child sexual abuse victims.

“In the last two years, many in the community have focused on increasing support for Penn State football,” said Justine Andronici, a local lawyer who represents three young men who testified against Sandusky last summer. “Penn State is not the victim.”

Andronici pointed to signs in downtown State College storefronts that read “Proud to support Penn State football” as an example of the energy that should be directed toward the victims.

“Where are the window signs and billboards that say we support survivors of child sexual abuse?” Andronici said. “I hope the community can someday find the strength to move in that direction.”

Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, would be elated, too, if the streetscape of her hometown of State College bore signs like that, she said. But State College isn’t alone in having yet to embrace whole-hearted support.

“That means speaking up when you have suspicions, reporting it to higher authorities, making calls to hotlines, talking to an expert,” she said. “I think that we still have a long way to go for this to become a community value.

“I can’t think of a single community in the country where I can say, ‘Yeah, they get it.’ ”

She’s worried that as the Sandusky case fades further in the rear-view mirror, people’s interest in effecting change won’t be as strong.

“Ideally this case would have shaken the country to the core that would have lots of communities across the country trying to do the same thing,” she said. “We’d like to see the little bit of groundswell that started around this case continue.”

Philadelphia lawyer Thomas Kline, who represents a young man who testified against Sandusky at trial, agreed.

“The need for victims’ support will be ongoing, and absent the public spotlight will predictably fade, without a strong, continuing drumbeat by interested victims’ groups,” he said. “That work becomes more difficult out of the public eye.”

He also issued a call to action:

“These groups should coalesce, and insist on full accountability of the spending of the NCAA money taken by the NCAA from Penn State to assure that the NCAA’s promises of helping victims of childhood sexual abuse will actually happen in an effective, transparent manner.”

At the same time advocates and activists have called for stronger support for victims, there’s an acknowledgment of all the work the community has done to raise awareness of the problem.

The work has been taken up by Penn State, whose administrators have committed to making the university a leader in child abuse education and prevention. Other groups, such as the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and the YMCA of Centre County are working toward their goal of training 5,000 adults in Centre County about the signs of child sexual abuse.

Penn State has revamped policies so that children are better protected when they’re on campus, such as not allowing any adult to have one-on-one contact. The university has also trained thousands of employees about being mandated reporters and has taken an inventory of all the programs on campus that bring in young boys and girls.

On the academic side, the university has hosted two conferences on the topic of child abuse. The first, last year, brought in keynote speakers and abuse survivors Sugar Ray Leonard and Elizabeth Smart, and the second one this fall concentrated on the concept of educating law enforcement officials statewide about the benefits of children’s advocacy centers.

Penn State also settled claims in October with 26 men who said Sandusky had abused them. Andronici’s clients, who include Victim 2, 3, 7 and 10 and Sandusky’s adoptive son, Matt Sandusky, were among those who settled. Kline’s client, Victim 5, settled, too.

Locally, advocates in Centre County have spearheaded an effort to establish a children’s advocacy center. The purpose of the center is to reduce the trauma a child experiences by going through one interview with a trained specialist instead of multiple interviews by police, a case worker, a prosecutor and a doctor.

The center is under the umbrella of Mount Nittany Health and will be located in an office within its Bellefonte medical park.

“We were blindsided by this tragedy but picked ourselves up off the ground and took care of business,” said county Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who was one of the organizers of the children’s advocacy center that will open in January. “Centre County is now aware, educated and our children are much safer.

“As a community, we need to celebrate our accomplishments and at the same time, continue to move forward and heal.”

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