How The Justice System Fails Victims Of Child Abuse

(Huffington Post) The disturbing issues surrounding child abuse and what happens to those who report it is a particularly poignant topic given that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and a trial for former Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky on fifty-two counts of abuse is fast approaching.

As journalists who have collectively spent eighty years in the trenches of the court system and beyond, we’ve repeatedly watched young children tell stories of horrible abuse from the witness stand. In all likelihood, those who accused Sandusky will also face intense questioning when they tell their stories under oath to a jury. It’s happened so often in other cases that advocates of those who have been abused lament that those courageous enough to come forward will be victimized in a different way in court.

Over the years, we’ve watched young men and women under oath crumble into tears when asked to specifically describe abuse foisted upon them. We’ve seen children as young as seven-years-old curl up in fetal positions as they’re cross-examined after implicating relatives, loved ones or complete strangers. In some very rare cases, we’ve also seen young children recant their stories under harsh questioning.

The backdrop to all of this is that everyone — alleged child abusers included — has a Constitutional right to face their accusers along with the legal right to challenge every aspect of the charges against them. That usually starts and ends with efforts by defense lawyers to impugn the integrity of the witness, or from the point of view of child abuse experts, cause true victims to endure a second, state-sanctioned instance of abuse.

In Pennsylvania, ten young men have gone through the ordeal of telling investigators and a grand jury they were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator and founder of The Second Mile, a charity for troubled youth. Like most child abuse accusers, they are braced to become targets again, this time by Sandusky’s defense team, during a trial that is slated to start in June.

“It’s how the criminal justice system works, and unfortunately, it works against victims,” said Jennifer Storm, executive director of the Victims/Witness Assistance Program in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It can feel like being intimidated and controlled all over again. But there’s a fine line in front of a jury. Badgering a witness can backfire by alienating jurors.”

Joseph Amendola, Sandusky’s lawyer, started challenging the motives of the accusers in that matter just minutes after waiving a preliminary hearing last December.

“This is the fight of Jerry Sandusky’s life and we plan to fight this to the death,” he said four months before a trial judge placed a gag order on all trial participants.

There are fifty-two child molestation charges against Sandusky. The young men, all of them who met Sandusky through The Second Mile, have said Sandusky lavished them with gifts and trips and access to the world of Penn State football before subjecting them to abuse that dated back to 1998. According to a statewide investigating grand jury, the young men said they were improperly touched or molested in Sandusky’s car, Penn State football locker room showers, swimming pools, hotel rooms and, among other places, the basement of Sandusky’s home. Amendola said he will not entertain a plea bargain.

“We’re ready to defend, always have been ready to defend,” Amendola said.

Amendola has condemned the charges as vague, ambiguous and the product of collusion between the troubled Second Mile youths and lawyers seeking big financial judgments. He has secured records of text messages, telephone calls and other data he claims will produce the true story of what the accusers and their lawyers did behind the scene. Then he plans to make every one of the accusers answer specific questions about times and dates and places that ultimately will clear his client.

The tactic is familiar to those who have established a support network for those who have come forward with stories of abuse.

In 2010, the latest year in which statistics are available, there were 695,000 cases of child abuse reported in the United States, with 1,560 of them ending in death, according to sponsors of the nationwide child abuse awareness campaign. Experts say those numbers are conservative because many young victims of abuse are loathe to report it. They fear no one will believe them, especially if the abuser is a prominent individual, and the stigma attached to coming forward is often worse than being confronted by a defense attorney. It is not a crime that goes away. Those who were abused as children turn to alcohol or drugs to mask their nightmares, and they often have trouble finding healthy relationships as adults.

Pennsylvania, where Sandusky is being prosecuted, is among the many states that limit what can be asked in the cross-examination of those alleging sexual assault, especially children. Nevertheless, psychologists and therapists, along with advocates who counsel those who have gone through horrific experiences, prepare those who are called to testify for the worst.

Before the gag order was imposed, lawyers for the accusers shot down Amendola’s comments. Among them was Ben Andreozzi, who represents one of the young men alleging long-term abuse at the hands of Sandusky. Andreozzi said his client initially had no desire to become involved in the case and had kept a secret inside him for years. The young man was terrified about the prospects of telling his story in open court, but eventually, he found the inner resolve to come forward.

“This is the most difficult time of my life. I can’t put into words how unbearable this has been on my life, both physically and mentally… (But) I will still stand my ground, testify and speak the truth,” Andreozzi’s client said in a written statement after the December preliminary hearing was waived.

As for collusion, Andreozzi said the only contact his client had with any of the others was to apologize for not having the courage to come forward sooner.

Lawyers representing another young man, whose mother first reported Sandusky in 1998 for showering naked with her son in the Penn State football locker room, knows what he faces, but remains steadfast in his desire to confront Sandusky in court.

“We have a responsibility to shine a bright light on the practice of ‘grooming’ vulnerable children for sexual activity — especially when it is enabled by institutional indifference,” wrote Howard Janet and Ken Suggs of Baltimore, on their web site.

Experts in child abuse and their lawyers always applaud the intestinal fortitude exhibited by child abuse victims who come forward. In the Sandusky case and others, they try to prepare them for what they will face. Unfortunately, in many cases, that will most assuredly include yet another assault when they take an oath to tell the truth.