Blue and white pinwheels — Prevent Child Abuse America’s symbol for child abuse prevention — spun daintily in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Heritage Hall on Thursday afternoon while Penn State alumnus Janet Rosenzweig spoke of her decadeslong efforts to prevent child maltreatment.
Rosenzweig’s speech came on the heels of Penn State’s announcement that it will establish the Center for Healthy Children. It’s made possible by a $7.7 million grant from the National Institute of Health and a $3.4 million matching contribution from the university. The center will continue and build upon research on child well-being that Penn State begaun in 2012.
Having earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in individual and family studies and health education, respectively, Rosenzweig said she first realized the importance of sex education after her undergraduate IFS adviser insisted she take a human sexuality course because “sex is a part of family life.”
“Against my will, I took BIO 341 or 441, and that set my career,” Rosenzweig said. “Because, at the same time that Penn State was starting to provide an academic focus on human sexuality, the pharmaceutical industry just started mass-producing the oral contraceptives.”
It was from this class that Rosenzweig was recruited to help jump-start a peer contraceptive education program at University Health Services. She soon decided to add “certified sex educator” to her resume.
Today, Rosenzweig spearheads research to prevent child maltreatment as the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
During her decades studying child maltreatment, Rosenzweig has identified some key steps to take in order to prevent child abuse.
First, Rosenzweig said child abuse prevention stems from building strong relationships and communities in a child’s life.
“There’s too many people who think that counting black and blue marks and giving out an 800 number is child abuse prevention,” Rosenzweig said. “That’s not.”
She continued, “Knowing how to recognize the signs that a child has already been subjected to something is very important, and I don’t want to downplay how important that is, but real prevention means building strength in individuals, families and communities before any abuse can happen.”
In order to encourage relationships in a child’s life, Rosenzweig explained her one-child-one-grownup philosophy. She said to help prevent child abuse, every child should have access to one adult who can teach them the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships.
“I boil it down to one very simple question,” Rosenzweig said. “Is every child in our state linked to at least one grownup who has everything it takes to raise a healthy, happy, productive child?”
This adult, Rosenzweig said, does not necessarily have to be a parent. He or she simply must be a trusted adult in a child’s life who can provide financial stability, health care, housing and education in a child’s life.
Even if a child is experiencing stress from an unstable family life, Rosenzweig said “the presence of a safe, stable, nurturing relationship to buffer the impact of that stress reduces some of the effects that might otherwise be seen.”
In addition to providing a child with stability, Rosenzweig said adults hold the responsibility of teaching children about their anatomy.
“I firmly believe that it’s a child’s right to have accurate information about their bodies, about bodies that are different from theirs and understand how the human body functions,” Rosenzweig said.
Human sexual arousal, she added, is an autonomic response, and she said she believes it is essential that children learn that.
“Why do I think it’s so critical for kids to know that?” Rosenzweig asked. “Because when they don’t know that, they are subject to lies of a molester who tells them they weren’t a victim because of the way their body responded.
“To be molested and…to really think that, ‘I don’t have permission to feel like a victim because my body did this’ — that is devastating.”
Despite their potential to help, these guidelines to preventing child abuse are not foolproof, Rosenzweig explained.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to disappear completely,” Rosenzweig said. “I don’t know of anybody who has ever promised that.”
But Rosenzweig said guaranteeing that prevention is foolproof can be harmful, “because then what we end up with is parents who feel like failures if their child is struck by lightning.”
Sarah Mearhoff is a Penn State journalism student.