The recent events at Penn State University and Syracuse University serve as reminders that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is an all-too-present fact of modern life. Yet, millions of Americans do not believe that this problem exists at all. Why?

Overwhelmingly, the child victims do not tell. Leading scholars and researchers tell us that at least 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually victimized in some way before they reach the age of 18, and just 1 in 3 will tell anybody about it. These are America’s hidden victims. We have made progress as a nation in attacking this problem but even today, two out of three child victims suffer in silence. They don’t tell Mom, they don’t tell Dad, they don’t tell anybody.

Millions doubt the existence of these heinous crimes for another reason. The offenders do not match society’s stereotype. Most Americans want to believe that someone who would prey upon a child sexually is evil-looking, a menacing, frightening stranger.
Yet, we have learned that most often those who victimize children are not strangers to the child, they are known to the child.

They seek out legitimate access to the child. We should never be shocked when someone who abuses a child is a volunteer or employee of a youth-serving organization, or a school, or a daycare center, or many other settings that provide easy, low-risk access to children. That is why the leading child-serving organizations have taken bold steps to do background screening of their staff and volunteers, and then monitor and supervise the interactions between adults and children.

In monitoring sex offender treatment groups and programs, one hears a chilling word, “grooming.” Most often, these offenders who prey upon children do not snatch their victims randomly from the streets, they groom their victims, win their confidence and trust through friendship, kindness, and then they violate it. In so many of these cases, the child is made to feel responsible, like it is his or her fault. And the child is often intimidated or threatened by this person of trust and authority.

Even if they decide to tell, will anyone listen to them? Will anyone understand? These children feel that no one will believe them even if they do speak out, and too many adults simply do not listen to or understand what children try to tell us.

The offenders are not dirty, menacing strangers, they are respectable citizens – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, police officers. Often they are people who outwardly show deep and enduring commitment to helping children in need.

What can you do? What can every citizen do? First, communicate with your children and empower them. Make sure that they understand that you love them, trust them, believe them and that if anyone ever touches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should tell you or a trusted adult.

Second, the first line of defense is a vigilant public. If you see it, know about it or suspect it, report it. Call your local police and then call 1 (800) THE LOST or report it to www.cybertipline.com, at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The sexual exploitation of children is not a problem that only happens somewhere else. It is happening in big cities and small towns across America. Thousands of children fall victim to sexual exploitation every year. We need to do more. Because every child deserves a safe childhood.

Ernie Allen, President & CEO National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.