Biden: Declare child sexual abuse a public health emergency
Last week a group of child health advocates signed an open letter urging President Biden to recognize April 8 as World Day for Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, Healing and Justice. The group is also calling on Biden to create a Presidential Commission to End Sexual Violence Against Children, comprised of “experts including researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and, importantly, adult survivors.” The group is urging Biden to establish the new commission within the first 200 days of his administration.
The cosigners, me being one of them, are asking Biden to shine a national spotlight on a topic that has long been considered too taboo for an open discussion — child sexual abuse. We are appealing to him to set an example and start a national dialogue to change the way we talk about this public health issue. It’s not an easy subject, but Biden is the right person who can lead us outside our comfort zone and begin an important conversation to dismantle the stigma that too often suppresses the issue of child sexual abuse from public view.
No one wants to talk about it — no one wants to admit that child sexual abuse occurs in every community, in every state, all across the country. Until we break the silence and shame and get serious about prevention, children will continue to be harmed and the mental and physical consequences of sexual abuse will persist long into adulthood.
It demands presidential leadership and bipartisan Congressional support. Acknowledging the grave injustice endured by so many children is the first step. But making child sexual abuse prevention, care, treatment and support a national priority, and putting resources behind a comprehensive effort to prevent abuse going forward is the main goal. America’s children deserve a healthy and safe future.
To keep silent about child sexual abuse gives perpetrators what they want — unobstructed permission to abuse again. According to child sexual abuse prevention advocate Darkness to Light, where I serve as chair, an estimated one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. That statistic is likely far higher since an estimated 60 percent of child sexual abuse survivors never utter a word about it. Ninety percent of sexually abused children know their abuser and 60 percent are abused by someone known and trusted by their families. Experts also say that the rates of abuse are likely much higher for children with cognitive and physical disabilities.
Too many abusers have been held unaccountable. Too many survivors have been forced to internalize misplaced feelings of guilt and been silenced by shame. And too many more will be future statistics of child sexual abuse unless we take decisive action. Until we run toward this problem — unless we talk about it in the open light of day and see leadership from our elected officials — nothing will change.
If established, there are three areas where a Biden presidential commission intended to curb child sexual abuse can make a difference. First, it must work toward galvanizing Congressional support for the End Sexual Violence Against Children Act, proposed national legislation that would increase research and funding and expand federal incentives to strengthen state laws. Second, Biden must declare child sexual abuse a U.S. public health emergency so that the country can begin to understand its true gravity and scope. Third, it can position the U.S. to lead an international effort aimed at eradicating and preventing global child sexual abuse by making it a core part of U.S. foreign policy.
The magnitude of the problem makes it ever more unconscionable that recent legislative attempts to protect children and women from abusers have stalled due to political dysfunction in Washington. Last Congress, the U.S. House passed the Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which would have expanded services for addressing child abuse, but the bill failed to reach the floor of the U.S. Senate. The same is true for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which would have authorized new programs and added new protections for survivors of domestic abuse. The bill passed the House, but the Senate never voted on it.
Child sex abuse survivors do not have a political affiliation. They reside in every red and blue state in the nation. The districts where they live are represented by Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress. How an issue as important as their health, protection and safety could be possibly viewed down partisan lines is inexcusable.
Biden can rise above and be a champion for survivors and accelerate the cause of child sexual abuse prevention light years forward by calling for bipartisan Congressional support and appointing a commission to recommend actionable solutions.
The question is, does he have the courage and conviction to do it?
Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is chair of Darkness to Light, a child sexual abuse prevention organization, and a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.