More than one year has passed since the Rev. Robert Carlson jumped to his death off the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, after he learned that police were investigating his alleged sexual abuse of multiple children. Since then, some organizations have changed their policies to try to catch perpetrators of child abuse. Though their actions are a positive step, much more must be done to address the too-common silence of those who suspect or know about abuse and do not tell the state. Ultimately, individuals and organizations in every community must be part of helping to prevent child abuse.
After a Maine State Police report revealed that Carlson, a well-known religious and civic leader, likely abused children as far back as 36 years before his death, a couple organizations altered their practices. Penobscot Community Health Care, where Carlson was president for several years, is now conducting more comprehensive background checks on non-medical staff. At Husson University, where Carlson was a part-time chaplain, officials used to only do background checks on teachers; now the school performs the checks on everyone.
It’s good that these organizations have reviewed how they operate and made changes. But even if their new policies had been in place years ago, they probably would not have stopped Carlson, as he had no criminal record. And it appears some people in the Bangor area — possibly counselors, law enforcement officers and a school official — had some evidence or suspicions that Carlson was abusing boys and did not tell the state.
The issue is clearly larger than organization policies. The problem is a more expansive, cultural one where many people keep quiet even when they have reason to suspect someone of wrongdoing. The issue is also rooted in fear. Informing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services of suspected abuse is a difficult task for anyone, whether their employment legally requires them to report or not. One way to overcome fear and help determine effective responses is to have more information:
• Of the 271,176 children in Maine in 2010, 12.1 percent, or 3,269, were found to be victims of neglect or physical, sexual or psychological abuse. The average rate for the country that year was slightly less at 9.2 percent, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.
• In most cases (76.9 percent), Maine child victims suffered from neglect, though various types of abuse often overlap. They also suffered from psychological abuse (39.9 percent) and physical abuse (16.1 percent). Sexual abuse (6.8 percent) occurred the least.
• As is the case nationally, most initial reports of child abuse in Maine do not find a guilty perpetrator. Of the 6,077 reports of abuse that were investigated in 2010 in Maine, 2,179 were ultimately substantiated. In 3,898 cases, there was not sufficient evidence to conclude the child was being maltreated.
• In 2010 in Maine, there were found to be 3,035 unique perpetrators of child abuse — who often abused multiple children. Forty-eight percent were men; 52 percent were women. Most abuse happens at the hands of parents, relatives and unmarried partners of parents.
• The greatest percentage of people who suspect abuse and report it to DHHS come into contact with children through their professions. The most likely reporters are teachers, law enforcement and legal personnel, and social services staff.
Knowing what’s happening in Maine gives a clearer picture of why people are afraid to report their suspicions. Most often the abuse is being perpetrated by a child’s biological mother or father — making outsiders hesitant to inject themselves into a “family matter.” And even when someone reports suspected maltreatment, it doesn’t mean investigators will find enough evidence to substantiate the claim.
The fact remains, though, that even though people who inform the state may jeopardize their relationship with a child’s family, and even though they may be wrong, the personal risk to themselves is nothing compared to the possible danger an abused child faces.
There are ways to help lower the incidences of child abuse and neglect. When parents understand how their children develop, are nurturing and have a caring social network, they are less likely to direct anger and frustration at their children. Everyone can help parents in small and big ways. Get to know your neighbors, offer to babysit or help with chores, be kind and encouraging to children in your community, volunteer and, of course, learn to recognize and report signs of abuse or neglect. It takes communities to raise children and protect them.