Penn State and the danger of window dressing………
Trauma is a lifelong legacy.
And that seems to have been forgotten in the Penn State debacle.
With all the debates about who should take the heat, who is to blame, what are our policies, what are the implications for college sports – we keep forgetting what this event means for a trauma victim.
For men and women who have been victims of childhood trauma, particularly sexual trauma, it often sets off a cascade that pervades their adult lives – a cascade of secrecy, shame, mistrust, anger, guilt – that punctuates every day, sometimes in ways they do not recognize. As a psychologist and researcher, I have worked with numerous survivors of trauma, and there isn’t a a day when I don’t see how the legacy – of even an event that occurred once – can impact their lives decades later.
There is an interesting parallel process unfolding here. The reason trauma can unfold so pervasively in institutions like churches, sports teams and youth programs is that those institutions are like the other more revered institution in our culture – family. Families are our glue, but they are also often glued together by secrecy, with family members invested in putting a certain face to the world. Families and institutions often try to hide dirty secrets – which can result in making the victim feel as though they did something wrong. While no one is denying that Sandusky’s alleged actions were wrong and criminal – the hand wringing about how to do this so we don’t shake the institution up so much is troubling. And at the end of the day – we are often playing a game of dodgeball with the legal profession – universities afraid of lawsuits often taking conservative courses of action in the name of risk management.
This cloak of secrecy often results in a retraumatization for the victim who is confused, doesn’t know where to turn, and has lost a safe harbor. A person who has experienced such trauma may feel responsible if bad things happen to their program, school, coach or family. Adults who learn of such events ostensibly want to “do the right thing” – e.g. make the report – but few want to run the risk of really bringing shame upon the system or face litigation by going all the way to law enforcement or the like. And the fact is, many of our social service and child protective agencies often do an anemic job of following up on reports of abuse and violence against children due to poor staffing, poor training, and poor follow-up.
We should not solely make this a discussion of the culture of athletics and the culture of blame. We hate having our idols besmirched – Joe Paterno’s association with the scandal was like finding out a beloved relative was asleep at the wheel.
But there has to be a greater accountability – we have to do everything in our power to shelter young people from sexual predation – and sadly the ones who are victimized are often brought into so called environments of trust – religious communities, sports teams, youth programs – that were meant to keep them safe from the dangers of the world.
The Penn State scandal needs to be a wakeup call that every time our systems fail and a child is traumatized – we have permanently changed their history, the kinds of choices they will make in their lives, and at some level their identity – and as a result, we have changed our world.
Institutions and families need to stop living in an illusion and fight for those who do not have a voice. Any less is unacceptable.