While prosecutors in Pennsylvania recently convicted retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse in a high-profile trial, Prince George’s County’s top prosecutor is taking measures to ensure the cases happening in Prince George’s are spotted and mitigated before reaching that level — and is doing so with the YMCA and child abuse awareness advocates.
Angela D. Alsobrooks, the county’s state’s attorney, announced at a Wednesday news conference at the YMCA Potomac Overlook gym in Fort Washington that she is joining about a dozen members in law enforcement, the school system, churches and social services who will sit on a steering committee to train county residents to identify and prevent instances of child abuse in Prince George’s.
One out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old in the U.S., said Angie Reese-Hawkins, the president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.
Additionally, roughly 500,000 babies who are born in the U.S. this year will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, Alsobrooks stated, adding that the median age of a child sex abuse victim is 9 years old and that 30 to 40 percent of children sexually abused are abused by a family member. Alsobrooks said she does not have specific statistics on child sex abuse cases in Prince George’s County, but said the rate of cases mirror national trends.
“Unfortunately, what’s not unusual about [Sandusky’s] circumstance is that he was a community member who was trusting. He founded a group to help young children, very young boys that he later molested the entire time and used his own charitable organization to gain access to these children,” Alsobrooks said. “There are children who suffer every day, even in our community, who live in a world of pain and trauma. Trauma from being chained by the secrets they are keeping because they thought nobody would believe them.”
John De Gout, the vice president of leadership development for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, said YMCA is heading the effort to reduce child sex abuse cases as part of their organization’s new direction involving its three tiers of youth development, healthy living and especially social responsibility.
Jackie Dilworth, YMCA of Metropolitan Washington’s director of communications, said Prince George’s County was selected to host the model program after building a relationship with Alsobrooks and discovering her desire to pursue the initiative.
“We really chose the area to start in as a model since [Alsobrooks] was so behind it and so passionate about it and shared compelling cases,” she said.
De Gout said in addition to the state’s attorney’s office and county partners such as the Office of the Sheriff, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the county department of family services, YMCA has partnered with Darkness to Light, a national nonprofit dedicated to teaching adults simple, proactive steps to protect children from sexual abuse and will be using their outlined steps and training material to educate county residents.
“It’s always been a big deal for us to protect children and take care of children,” De Gout said. “It’s easy enough to train our staff and teach our staff about prevention, but we realize that this isn’t a [YMCA] problem, it’s not a church problem and it’s not a school problem. This is a community problem. She felt very strongly that we really need to bring this training to people so we can empower them to protect children.”
The steering committee, made up of about a dozen officials, will meet regularly at the YMCA Potomac Overlook to establish training sessions and education material needed to inform county parents, church leaders, school leaders and youth organization leaders on how to prevent child abuse incidents, said Reese-Hawkins. She said the goal of the partnership is to train 43,000 adults in the county by 2017, educating 5 percent of the county’s population, which she said is the tipping point to spark behavioral change.
“We’re providing a tool to empower our community. It’s our job to make our community safer for our kids. It’s our problem,” Reese-Hawkins said.
Alsobrooks commended the YMCA and Darkness to Light for selecting Prince George’s as its focus area to potentially serve as a regional model for improving the issue of childhood sex abuse.
“We have the opportunity to bust the doors of the secret that surrounds childhood sex abuse. This is an ugly secret that exists all across America,” Alsobrooks said. “This partnership will allow the victims to step out of the darkness.”
Prince George’s Child Resource Center, Inc. is a Largo-based child protection advocacy group that is not directly involved in the partnership but supports its efforts, organization officials said.
“We believe more education will protect more children and we thoroughly support [the partnership],” said Marti Worshtil, the Child Resource Center’s executive director. “Children are harmed for life. The impact of sex abuse on young children is just a lifelong issue. It’s so harmful and it is the responsibility of society to protect them.”