Speech to Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance

"The Way Forward"

April 10, 2013

Before I get into my main speech and main message, I want to thank all of you—all the professionals working to prevent abuse issues before they become problems at the personal, family, community and societal level. I want to thank you all for the work you do to protect the children and families in this state. 

 

I also want to thank the legislators in attendance for your service to the commonwealth and your support of this cause. Thank you for passing Act 126 which has been mentioned by people before me. 

 

I know my presence here is not without some controversy, but I am not here to press the case for my father, or to talk about my family. I am here for one reason—to discuss the responsibility we have to the children of Pennsylvania. 

 

For me the timing of this speech does not matter.  If I had been asked to come make this speech five years ago I would have been here.  

 

Because the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance’s mission is a noble cause.  

 

About two weeks ago I spent time with Angela the Executive Director of the alliance. I saw her mission, her passion—and ate about half a dozen of the cookies she brought with her. 

 

I admire the scope of the Alliance’s mission and the efficiency with which they operate. 

 

With a budget under seven figures, each year this organization trains 15,000 professionals and works with 6,000 families. Their training programs for teachers and people who work with children are vitally important.  

 

Although my childhood was not perfect, when the lights went out in my room I knew I would safely sleep through the night. Like most kids I was afraid of the monster under my bed or hiding in the closet, but with my stuffed Mickey Mouse I knew I was safe. 

I knew I would wake to a home with loving parents, food on the table, clothes to wear and maybe even smiles from my siblings. As a parent I know my children have the same sense of security. 

 

But I have also been fortunate in my life in another way. My father and mother raised me to be aware of others that did not have that same reality. For over twenty years recruiting as a college football coach I saw those other realities first hand in homes and schools across the country.  

 

I recruited young men with fathers in prison, young men living with a grandmother because the parents were dead or gone to violence, or health or drug-related issues. There was one young man with no home who went to school hoping he could find a friend’s house to stay at for a couple of days. Less than a year after being and A/B student that young man ended up getting shot and dropping out of his high school.  

 

This is an amazing country, but there are still so many challenges left for us to tackle. 

 

There are children living in poverty or in homes where drug use by a parent is rampant.  

 

There are children living in homes where abuse is a reality. 

 

There are children who go to bed at night and the next day’s sunrise promises nothing good and threatens many bad things. 

 

I understand how difficult parenting can be—even in the best of circumstances. No matter how patient or understanding you are; there are times when you get angry. It happens to everyone, but the key is to recognize potential problems and reach families to give them to tools to cope, the tools to handle the tough issues they face.  

 

Families need help. 

 

Children need help. 

 

If you don’t believe me, look at the map. The ribbons represent 206 children killed by abuse in this state in the last five years. 206 children, with lives yet to live that were killed by abuse. How many people are aware of that number? 

 

In the news child abuse has a public perception that is not real. We’ve seen the coverage of high profile child sex abuse scandals. There is discussion of the issue and then we, as a society, move to the next news story. 

But the overwhelming majority of child abuse happens away from the media spotlight, it happens in places and homes where it may never be detected and there will never be charges filed. Sometimes it happens in a home where the family breadwinner is the abuser.

 

Turning that person in may cause a lost job, a lost home and financial ruin. That’s hard to overcome. 

Child Abuse happens in homes on streets in all 67 counties in this commonwealth. Most of it we never hear about. It thrives in the dark shadows cast by our willing ignorance. It is easier not to think about. 

 

It is tough to talk about child abuse. It is hard to recognize, but even harder to talk about. But the best weapon we have is open discussion to cast light into the dark places in our society. 

 

Since 9/11 in New York City they talk about terrorism in this way “If You See Something/Say Something”. 

That slogan was in a vendor's mind when he saw an unmanned car idling in Times Square. The alert response allowed the police to prevent a disaster.  

 

BUT HE KNEW WHAT TO LOOK FOR. 

 

When it comes to the quiet hidden terror of child abuse the people who can see something are very often the teachers in our school, or youth coaches or people who work with our children. The people the alliance trains are on the front lines in recognizing and stopping child abuse.  

 

But the alliance can arm all of us with the tools and the knowledge to recognize and respond to child abuse. You have to know what you’re looking for so you can see something and say something. 

 

The Front Porch Project they are working on is a challenge for all of us to look out front. I love the name the Front Porch. 

 

A friend of mine’s father once said “I don’t care about the back patio. I sit on the front porch, there ain’t nothing going on out back. I want to see all the neighborhood kids walking by. I can keep an eye on them.” 

 

That is what a community-based program is all about—The Front Porch where we can keep an eye on all the kids. 

 

We have supportive state legislators here with us. Your support protects children and we thank you for making that a priority.  

When I contemplate the true value of government and politics in this country I think of a story about Robert Kennedy. As a Senator he visited a camp of migrant workers outside Rochester. He saw families living in abandoned school buses without running water and children on filthy mattresses with bellies bloated from malnutrition. 

 

As he drove away he told his aide Jerry Bruno “This is why you go into politics, because you can use your position to help people in trouble.” 

 

That is what I hope drives everyone in government and everyone in position to make a difference. We all agree that protecting our most vulnerable residents must always be a top priority. It takes public and private support. 

 

There are children in trouble in Pennsylvania. They need our protection. Child abuse of all forms is a problem reaching every part of Pennsylvania. It does not discriminate—it knows no gender, race or class boundaries. 

 

As Americans we all believe this is a land of opportunity. We believe we must create a society where all children can not only survive, but thrive in nurturing, caring environments. 

 

That is something common to our humanity. 

 

Recently I received a short book from a woman in Canada. It is the true story of a woman married to a child sex offender—a man who was charged, confessed and convicted. 

 

The preface to the book “The Husband I Never Knew” author Diane Roblin-Lee writes: 

 

“Children are the most precious creatures in the universe. They are vulnerable little people, dependent on adults for every aspect of their environment. I think God made them so adorable so that we would just love looking after them. When I became a mother for the first time, I had the most amazing experience of suddenly feeling like a mother not only to my first little son, but to all the children in the universe. Motherhood is an awesome privilege of caring, protecting and nurturing the little ones of the world. I’m sure fatherhood carries the same feeling of loving not only one’s own children, but having a sense of responsibility to any child anywhere who comes within one’s sphere of life. We want children to be happy, to be safe and to grow strong.” 

I believe in this country we all share a responsibility. We talk about child welfare in this country, about the future generations. We talk about the children representing our hopes. 

 

But talk is cheap. 

 

Children don’t vote. Parents are the key. We need to advocate, we need to raise our voices, and show our intentions. 

 

Right now the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance has a backlog, a waiting list of people who want to be trained. If we were facing a crime wave we’d fight to get more police on the street as quickly as possible. 

 

It should be no different in training people how to recognize and respond to child abuse. 

We are happy to work with Angie and support her in the Family Support Alliance’s Front Porch Project. That community-based prevention program plays right into the words of author Diane Roblin-Lee when she wrote of motherhood applying to all the children of the universe.  

 

The cost of prevention is minuscule when compared to the damage, both direct and collateral to our children and society done when these offenders are allowed to act.  

 

Financially, the Family Support Alliances budget is a tiny fraction of the more than $150 million spent on investigations, hotlines, mental health and medical care alone in abuse cases. That is just a part of the much larger impact on the state. 

 

As we leave this breakfast and make our ways back to our homes and communities, I want to remind you that you must carry the resolve with you. 

 

We’ve come a long way. During college I worked in Parks and Rec during the summer with kids. We had kids coming to the playground from their neighborhood. That was back in the 1980s. We never talked about child abuse, it was never a topic. 

 

We have made progress but we have farther to go. 

 

We can only see what we are looking to prevent if we know what we should be looking for. 

 

In child abuse we must remove the fears associated with coming forward both for the children affected by abuse or by people who report it. The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance does that. 

 

That must change---The message must be that when you come forward, we all will stand with you.  

 

My charge to all of you is raise awareness.

 

Give sight to the blind, help us all to see the threats among our children. Keep talking, but better still act to support meaningful programs that can enable real prevention.  

 

If there is one thing I have learned in the last year and a half it is this sad fact---child abuse offenders do NOT need enablers—but the people who protect children DO need enablers.

 

We, the citizens of this commonwealth and the elected officials who represent us must be the enablers for good, for the alliance to train people on the front lines. We must be the enablers who help families steer clear of abuse.

 

We need help to build our front porches with the right vantage points to see what we need to see. 

 

My father told us, and he told us when I coached he told the team “You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” We as a society have to get better. 

 

As I said, we need help to build our front porches with the right vantage points to see what we need to see. 

 

Then it is up to us to have the courage to act.  

 

Thank you.

© 2014 Jay Paterno