Have you enabled a Larry Nassar?

Dr. Larry Nassar sexually molested more than 160 young girls. He didn’t drive around in a van and kidnap girls he didn’t know on their way to or from school. He didn’t jump out from behind a tree and grab a girl and run. He wasn’t a stranger to the girls he harmed, nor to their families. Coaches brought girls to Larry Nassar. Parents drove their girls to appointments with him. University officials and Olympic team officials created and supported the environment where Nassar was allowed to do this.

Does that scare you? Good. It should.

Rachael Denhollander, one of the first women to come forward with public accusations against Dr. Nassar, was the last to speak at his sentencing hearing. Her comments are worth noting: “Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to assault.”

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog called Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?. It is about how, over the years, more than one person observed Jerry Sandusky, head of the nonprofit organization The Second Mile and former Penn State defensive coordinator, molesting boys, or heard someone say that they had witnessed such. Yet none of those people called the police and none of the people in authority that they told about what had been seen called police. The blog was about how we create environments where, not because of policies but because of culture, we discourage people from asking tough questions or reporting something that has the potential to be profoundly disruptive to everything an organization, a program, or a campaign is trying to do. It’s how, in so many cultures, we are discouraged from even asking questions. The #meetoo movement has confirmed so much of what I said in this blog back in 2011.

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersIn that blog, I challenged nonprofits, non-governmental agencies, universities, government departments and other mission-based programs – and particularly aid agencies with staff members in the field! – to take a hard look at not just their policies, but their culture. and I asked: Are you never hearing about inappropriate behavior by employees or volunteers at your organization not because nothing is happening, but because people don’t feel comfortable saying anything?

Per this latest case of harm to children, here’s some additional, more practical advice for parents and anyone working with kids in any capacity (coach, church group leader, etc.):

Any adult demanding or frequently asking for one-on-one, unsupervised time with a young person is something to look closely at and ask questions about, no matter that adult’s degree, job, religion or familial relationship. Whether it’s a doctor, a priest, a rabbi, an Iman, a teacher, a coach, a choir teacher, an uncle, an aunt, whatever: think about that one-on-one time, why it’s necessary, if it’s really necessary, if it’s appropriate, and how it makes you or your young person feel. Never let fears of how your questions might be perceived or that you might make someone uncomfortable keep you from asking questions. It’s perfectly reasonable and appropriate to say, before your kid goes on a school trip or sporting event, “Will any of these kids ever be alone, one-on-one, with an adult and, if so, what would the circumstances be?” As a parent, remember that you have EVERY right to say to any person in charge, to any adult in a program, even to a doctor, that you would prefer that one-on-one time not happen. This isn’t about parenting or managing from a place of fear and suspicion; it’s about parenting or managing from a place of “I’m watching and I care.”

One-on-one time between an adult and a child or teen is usually a wonderful, positive thing, something to be encouraged and cultivated in many circumstances. It would be a sadder world without one-on-one time between adults and children. But one-on-one time between an adult and a teen or child shouldn’t happen just because of someone’s title, and shouldn’t happen without questions. Ask questions. Decide your comfort level. Listen to kids – and watch them, because often, their behavior will tell you very quickly that there is a problem.

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