Does Obama 'have the back' of abused children, too?

President Barack Obama deserves credit for making the war against sexual assault on college campuses a top priority of his administration. In January, he created a task force of senior officials to coordinate federal enforcement efforts. And this month he created a government-run web site, notalone.gov, which will provide resources for students, help for victims and help track enforcement efforts.

“Perhaps most important, we need to keep saying to anyone out there that has ever been assaulted: you are not alone,” said President Obama.  “We have your back. I’ve got your back."

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It’s time for the White House to show it also has the back of children who undergo the horror of sexual abuse, by taking real action.

The White House Council on Women and Girls was created in response to members of Congress repeatedly sounding appropriate alarms about sexual assaults, mostly against women, in the military and on college campuses, leading to the president’s stronger posture.

What grassroots group is applying similar pressure to stamp out the scourge of children who are abused by relatives, teachers, authority figures and others to whom they have difficulty saying no, or reporting to their parents or police after they are victimized?

Consider the following:

  • One in four girls and one in six boys under the age of are sexually violated before age 18.
  • Every year more than three million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children.
  • The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average between four and seven children every day to child abuse and neglect.
  • More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way. 

I know the president takes these matters very seriously. He declared April National Child Abuse Prevention Month, vowing that “We all have a role to play in preventing child abuse and neglect and in helping young victims recover,” and encouraging Americans to look for warning signs such as changes in behavior and performance, untreated physical or medical issues, lack of adult supervision, and constant alertness.

Resources are also available on the Administration for Children and Families’ web site.

But just as it was important to up the ante against date rape or assaults in the military, it’s past time for tougher action, on both the federal and state level against the abuse of the weakest segment of our society. The president could start by calling on states to take a tougher stand and meet established federal benchmarks in fighting abuse.

The White House could hold state governments accountable by tying federal education funding to their efforts, commitment to and progress toward anti-abuse awareness programs.

The federal government could also mandate education both for teachers and students in abuse awareness and prevention, the same way they do to establish standards in math, science and other disciplines.

Another measure that could be implemented on the federal level would be mandating that “sexual predator” is stamped on the driver’s licenses of convicted offenders via the REAL ID act, similar to a recent provision in the state of Florida. Florida’s bundle of exemplary new laws make it the harshest in the country for sexual predators.

According to the Sun-Sentinel in south Florida -- which conducted an investigation by mining records in state databases, police reports and court documents -- nearly one quarter of sex offenders attacked again within six months of being released.

And these numbers do not include people living in Florida convicted in other states or federal court and those arrested but still awaiting trial for new sex crimes. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS,) in a study released in 2003 claims that compared to non-sex offenders released from state prisons, released sex offenders were four times more likely to be rearrested for a sex crime.

“One person reoffending when you have innocent victims is too many,’’ said Lauren Book, founder of Lauren's Kids, which advocates for victims of childhood sexual abuse and is an ardent supporter of Florida’s civil commitment efforts.

"These are children. And so I fight every day to make it so that these monsters, these sexually deviant behaving individuals are as far away from our children as humanly possible,” she said.

Isn’t the ability to quickly identify unsafe situations, loudly and clearly say “No!” to a potential abuser and/or quickly tell a trusted adult about the abuse of equal importance to our children’s future as the mastery of scholastic skills? Even more so, when we consider that children who suffer abuse will often not only fall behind academically but are more prone to dysfunctional or even criminal behavior as adults, including the abuse of others.

I hope Obama will go beyond awareness months and speeches and begin to treat sexual and other forms or abuse against children as the public health hazard that it is.

Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. In his philanthropy, he is the treasurer for the American Jewish Congress, co-founder of Magenu.org, and president for OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth.