Editor's note: This story is part of a retrospective series about the child sex abuse case of Jerry Sandusky. For more, visit collegian.psu.edu/sandusky.
In May 1998, a concerned mother reached out for help after her son had an uncomfortable experience with Jerry Sandusky in Penn State’s Lasch Building showers. One month later, the investigation dropped. Fourteen years later, the same man was found guilty for 45 counts of sexual abuse.
From the initial report of abuse to the final conviction, many moving parts affected the timeline of the Sandusky case and why he wasn’t held accountable sooner.
Ten years after his arrest and 20 years after her involvement in the case, licensed psychologist Alycia Chambers reflected on what happened in 1998.
Chambers, who worked and still works at The Highlands — which offers psychological services — in State College, received a call from the mother of whom the Freeh report labels the sixth survivor on May 4, 1998.
She then talked to the boy for a psychological evaluation that day, and in her report, Chambers concluded that Sandusky’s behavior raised concern for sexual abuse.
“I never doubted that I was seeing grooming and that [Sandusky] was a danger,” Chambers said.
After giving her report to Detective Ronald Schreffler, Chambers said she tried to keep in touch with the police and stay updated with the status of the case, but she didn’t have access to where the case was within Children and Youth Services’ system.
After Chambers’ evaluation, a counselor — not a licensed psychologist — named John Seasock interviewed the 11-year-old boy, and he reported no suspicious actions from Sandusky.
When it came time for law enforcement to decide whether to investigate further, Seasock’s report was considered over Chambers’. The investigation on that specific case stopped dead in its tracks.
Since her evaluation in 1998, Chambers said a few reporting regulations have changed, and psychologists who write reports can stay in the loop with where the case ends up in the system — something she didn’t get.
Reflecting on that time, Chambers said the process of interviewing the survivor in 1998 and investigating his situation was not ideal.
The boy underwent multiple evaluations from different adults alone within his own home, which she said is not the best practice as it can be detrimental for children to recite their trauma repeatedly.
Chris Kirchner, the executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania, works to support the state’s 41 child advocacy centers. She said pushing for a collaborative and uniform investigation process on both the state and local level is one of the organization’s main focuses.
“Even two different interviews can send the message to kids that they're not believed, that they're in trouble, that they're not giving the right answer,” Kirchner said.
The state association has 10 standards for accreditation of child advocacy centers, including a multidisciplinary team, forensic interviews, victim support and advocacy, case tracking, and a child-focused setting.
The process of investigating child abuse cases through advocacy centers starts with the forensic interview, which establishes the facts of the case, and then law enforcement, child welfare representatives, victim advocates and other professionals analyze the interview for information pertinent to their side of the investigation — and they do this all within a “child friendly and welcoming facility,” Kirchner said.
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With the accreditation standards and push for collaboration, Kirchner said the number of child advocacy centers increased from 21 to 41 in Pennsylvania, but there is still no mandate to require advocacy centers in the state, which she’d like to see change.
Kristina Taylor-Porter, former director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Centre County, is trained in forensic interviewing, and she said she would ask the multidisciplinary team what questions she needed to ask to ensure only one interview with the child.
“We know that whenever we do multiple interviews with children, it's really detrimental to the child because they're having to relive that experience over and over and over again,” Taylor-Porter said. “And it can also taint the investigation as well.”
The child advocacy center in Centre County was not established until 2014, and when it came to be, Taylor-Porter said she saw children from surrounding counties come forward.
“It was more of a recognition that much of the central part of the state was underserved in terms of having that strong collaboration,” Taylor-Porter said.
After the forensic interviewer gathers the facts of the case with non-leading questions, Taylor-Porter said the other collaborators can focus on their jobs — law enforcement can take legal measures and mental health professionals can start helping the survivors through the healing process.
From working as a forensic interviewer at The CARE Center of Indiana County to now teaching at Penn State within child maltreatment and advocacy studies and serving as a board member for the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania, Taylor-Porter said she has seen the collaboration continuously grow over time.
“If an individual makes a disclosure in a therapy session, that therapist then has to report it to ChildLine, which then is going to funnel it down through to the proper channels,” Taylor-Porter said, “So to Children and Youth and to law enforcement and to the prosecutor's office.”
Taylor-Porter said this multi-faceted approach to investigations helps ensure that cases don’t “fall through the cracks.”
Another addition to the investigation process that Kirchner said improved the effectiveness of the procedure was the introduction of videotaping forensic interviews.
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As the director of the Philadelphia Children's Alliance in 2011, Kirchner said recording the interviews with children was a “game changer,” allowing the collaborative process to flow smoothly.
With the implementation of videotapes, Kirchner said sometimes the videos can encourage defense attorneys to advise their clients to take plea bargains in legal cases. She said plea bargains keep the child survivors out of the courtroom, which is better for them overall.
Regarding the Sandusky case specifically, Chambers said testifying in court was difficult for the survivors.
“It's traumatic to the child to be cross examined in a courtroom, facing a beloved hero,” Chambers said. “That's really so deeply confusing to kids — and so scary.”
Kirchner also said the recordings help prosecutors make their decisions about a case, allowing them to see and hear the child tell his or her story.
Over time, the required training for mandated reporters and other professionals involved in child sexual abuse cases has increased, Kirchner said.
Mandated reporters are those required by law to report cases of child abuse, and the Child Protective Services Law was amended in 2014 to lengthen and broaden the list of mandated reporters and to provide online tools for accessible modes of reporting.
The law also requires more training of mandated reporters and advocacy workers, and it protects those who make reports, encouraging more people to speak up about their suspicions, because Taylor-Porter said it’s more beneficial to make a report on suspicions and be wrong, rather than not say anything at all.
“Anytime you see these high profile types of cases, especially within a community, you have a lot of people questioning, ‘How did we not know?’” Taylor-Porter said. “People did allegedly know things were going on, but nobody really made a report.”
Taylor-Porter also attributed the lack of reporting to the bystander effect, the way people assume someone else has already said something, so they don’t have to.
After the news of Sandusky’s abuse hit mainstream media, Taylor-Porter said she saw an increase in the number of child abuse cases reported.
Chambers said she thinks people are not only more willing to report sexual abuse now, but parents and guardians are more cautious when it comes to leaving their children with other adults.
“Informed people recognize that children can never be responsible for the situations they find themselves in with people who are older than them,” Chambers said.
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Moving forward, Chambers said she wants parents to keep a careful eye on their children because they are “key” components in keeping them safe.
From the law enforcement perspective, Director of the Communications Office with the Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Brent Miller said he wants to encourage survivors to come forward and tell their stories.
Miller, who graduated from Penn State in 2004 with a degree in journalism, worked closely with the child advocacy center in Dauphin County through the collaborative investigation process of child abuse cases.
When working in Dauphin County, Miller said he appreciated partnering with child advocacy centers and other entities because it brought “compassion” to the investigation process, as he said bringing a child to a police station can be intimidating.
While child advocacy has come a long way since the Sandusky case, Taylor-Porter and Kirchner said there are always things to improve upon.
Kirchner said she’d like to see the expungement of reports change, and it’s something she’s been working toward.
Currently, reports in the system that are not prosecuted disappear from the database within one year. Therefore, in cases like Sandusky’s where there were multiple leads with no convictions, the offenses get lost over the years.
With her own involvement in the loose strands of Sandusky’s timeline, Chambers said she’d like to see more education to foster stronger awareness surrounding child abuse so history doesn’t repeat itself.
“We really do need to have our eyes open as a culture, and it's encouraging to me whenever we make progress,” Chambers said. “But it's sad that so much of the progress comes at the revelation of yet, a new batch of survivors.”