It’s not often the Penn State Board of Trustees asks my advice, in fact the next time will be the first. But had they sought my counsel regarding the Joe Paterno statue, I’d have offered guidance they might not have received elsewhere. Leave the statue where it is. Then create a bronze statue for each of the victims who came forward, head down facing away from JoePa and his charging players, and several glass statues – ghosts, if you will - representing Sandusky’s anonymous, uncounted victims. Believe me, they’re out there.
Here’s the problem with taking down the statue: it eradicates the glaring reminder of what happened. “Let’s put this behind us and look to the future,” is not the most beneficial action here. If the Penn State situation were an aberration, it might be a good move, but it isn’t. The uniqueness is the setting and the setting only. I can guarantee you that any therapist or social worker who works with families that include sexual predators, knew the truth within the first forty-five seconds of Sandusky’s interview with Bob Costas. Mr. Defensive Coordinator Extraordinaire is a garden variety sexual predator. The only thing that makes him different is his fancy playground.
The NCAA came through Penn State with a fiery sword the other day and left a rather wide swath. They may not have issued “the death penalty,” but I’d almost rather be dead than get shot in both knees, one shoulder and the nuts. Much of the sport and news talk afterward focused on how the football program would survive for now, and how long it would take it to come back. I’m far more interested in how long it will take the mental health and social work programs of this country to rise to championship status in the first place.
Championship status! Hell, I’d be happy with a winning season.
The economy goes bad and politicians start making cuts. On the right, social services and mental health treatment are among the very first targets, and the left is all too willing to leave them on the table as bargaining chips. What are they bargaining away?
They’re bargaining away hundreds of thousands of kids just like the victims of Jerry Sandusky.
A teacher in a public high school in this country is looking out over a classroom that includes (conservatively) one in four girls and one in seven boys who have been sexually mistreated. In my early days at the mental health center in Spokane, Washington, the child therapist who worked almost exclusively with sexually abused five-and-unders, worked twelve hours a day four days a week and ten hours the fifth, eating lunch in the minutes between clients, and she had a six month waiting list. That’s in a county that might have included 350,000 people.
The two categories of people most often diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in this country are soldiers and sex abuse victims, and from a mental health perspective we treat them both about the same. They go to war - and believe me, if you’re a victim of that kind of abuse, you’ve been to war – and expect them to deal with the damage with almost no help. The New York Times reports we’re losing a soldier a day to suicide. There’s no way to calculate the number we’re losing from that other war.
The reason Joe Paterno and the rest of the top guns at Penn State were able to respond to what they knew in such a shameful way is, they didn’t engage their imaginations. They didn’t allow themselves to picture those kids, didn’t empathize with them. Because of that, the kids were dismissed and ignored, and Penn State is going to have a crappy football team for a long time.
But now we are Joe Paterno, and we have a second chance. We have been reminded once again that it’s time to engage our imaginations, see the kids we are charging past, pick them up and bring them along. We know they’re everywhere among us, and once we know it we can’t unknow it. No one gets more naïve. Just as the “leadership” at Penn State couldn’t protect the Nittany Lion brand by pretending the awful isn’t real, neither can we protect the USA brand that way.
Penn State was fined sixty million dollars by the NCAA, to be distributed to organizations around the country equipped to prevent and treat sexual abuse. Sixty million. Given the size of the problem nation-wide that’s like taking a leak in the Pacific Ocean to warm it up.
If you want to be the greatest country in the world, you can’t just declare it so. You have to make it so. You can’t simply harken back to a time when your national political and economic forces aimed to create actual equal opportunity. You can’t rename greed, capitalism and then rename that democracy. In the same way putting a magnetic ribbon on your car doesn’t really mean you support the troops, calling Jerry Sandusky a monster may not mean you really want to take care of lost children. Taking care of lost children calls for funding and action.
Sandusky’s victims – at least some of them – are found now. They discovered varying degrees of empowerment speaking up, and they’re going to be offered help. But close your eyes and use your imagination. The horror those kids went through is all around you. They are calling for help in language you may not understand, but there are people out here who know that language, and if we create public policy that supports them, trains them, and pays true middle class wages while keeping client loads at reasonable numbers, we can begin snatching those kids out of Sandusky’s shower and walking them to safety.