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 struggle to fulfill their potential, overwhelmed by feelings of shame. Some lead lonely lives, fearful and mistrusting 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 a cycle of abuse, over generations.

In most community newspapers across the nation, including this one, child abuse is in the headlines. We know these are articles that many avoid reading, uncomfortable with the topic. Whether the child abuser is a teacher, coach, parent, grandparent, or a total stranger, we don’t like to think about this kind of thing happening here.

But it does. About 20 percent of women and about 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.

In Oregon, teachers, child care providers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, health care providers, therapists, clergy, attorneys are all “mandatory reporters,” meaning that the law says that it is their duty 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.

The reality is that children usually know their abusers — abuse by strangers is much less common. If a child confides in you, they need your calm reassurance and your full support. They need to hear that they did nothing wrong. And they need to hear that you are going to help them.

If we learn anything from the Penn State scandal, it should be this: Denying the existence of child abuse helps no one.

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