A Pennsylvania judge’s ruling Monday that Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who is awaiting trial on sex abuse charges, may have contact with his grandchildren is alarming child protection advocates who suggest the state’s judicial system lacks training on how predators operate.
In a hearing on Friday, prosecutors had sought to restrain Mr. Sandusky’s movement while on bond to the confines of his home, with no contact with his 11 grandchildren, ages 2 to 14, either in person or via phone. Sandusky’s neighbors have complained that his presence on his backyard deck is disruptive, especially since his property borders an elementary school and playground.
Sandusky was arrested in November and charged with 52 criminal counts relating to the sexual abuse of 10 boys. He has pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to begin May 14.
Judge John Cleland ruled to allow Sandusky access to his backyard and added that he may also leave his home to meet his defense team, provided he give the county an advance warning of 36 hours and an agenda of his movement. Besides family members, he may also receive up to 12 adult visitors in his home in individual sessions, each capped at two hours, three times a week.
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However Judge Cleland’s ruling involving the grandchildren is most troubling to those who say child abuse predators often start abusing children who are closest to them. None of Sandusky’s alleged victims are related by blood, but the grand jury report that outlined a 15-year history of alleged abuse said Sandusky used sleepovers in his home to target and abuse children.
Jason Kutulakis, an attorney in Chambersburg, Penn., involved in child protection issues, says that because the home was so integral to the abuse, Sandusky should not be allowed to continue to entertain minors there, even if they are family. Typically, he says, defendants facing charges of child abuse are ordered to stay away from their victims and are refused any contact with minors.
He says an alternate solution would be to allow Sandusky to rescind his bail and enter the county prison system where he would be allowed a free range of visits from his grandchildren that would be heavily monitored.
“Let’s err on the side of caution for both Mr. Sandusky and the kids, so no false accusations are made. That seems to be the logical step right now,” he says.
According to the ruling Monday, Sandusky will be allowed to host his grandchildren at his house as well as talk with them on the phone, and via email, text, and Skype. The judge stipulated that a parent must be in attendance at all times.
“It might be argued that, given the nature of the charges filed against [Sandusky], contact with children in general should be prohibited out of an abundance of caution to protect the public safety. However, the request … is accompanied by the assurance that the parents will supervise any personal or electronic contact,” Cleland wrote. The judge added that prosecutors “presented no evidence” that the grandchildren’s parents “are not capable of assuring the safety of their children.”
A second judge will rule on Sandusky’s access to three of his 11 grandchildren, which involves a custody dispute between Michael Sandusky, his son, and Jill Thomas, his former daughter-in-law, who objects to their children having any contact with the elder Sandusky.
The Sandusky case is forcing Pennsylvania lawmakers to examine the state’s child abuse laws, most of which have not been updated in over 40 years. For example, state law defines child abuse only if it involves a perpetrator who is a family member or caregiver, such as a teacher or coach. Which means that, in some instances, what might be defined as child abuse in one state could be categorized as sexual assault in Pennsylvania.
State law also does not require training for how to report abuse, which Kutulakis says is needed to prevent judges from being swayed by emotional arguments the defense may make such as how Sandusky misses his family. On Friday his legal team provided the judge letters and drawings made by his grandchildren.
However Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn., says nothing in Friday’s hearing “indicated Sandusky is not at risk of harming these children.”
“Most people who are violated, they love their perpetrator…. That is partly why it’s hard for kids to make a disclosure” that they are abused, Vieth says. “The fact you have letters saying ‘I love grandpa’ – all of that is irrelevant to the question. The bottom line is what procedures or mechanisms are in place to protect children he may have contact with?”
Vieth says law, education and medical students should be required to take semester-long courses on identifying and how to respond to child abuse and that the same training should be mandated for judges assigned to child protection cases.
“We’re assuming if you have a law degree, that qualifies you to serve in a child abuse case in any capacity and that’s just not true,” he says. “You also need some training on child abuse and child development, otherwise, how can you rule on how restrictive the [bond] order [of defendants like Sandusky] should be?”