This September will mark six years since the world first learned about the horrific abuse that occurred at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics and exposed the institutional failures that allowed one man to abuse hundreds for decades.
Six years later, although this now defamed doctor Larry Nassar is in prison, the painful reality is that we have done far too little as a country to prevent what happened to hundreds like me – and children across the United States – from happening again.
Every minute we fail to act is a minute that another child is in danger of joining the 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-13 boys who experience sexual violence and abuse. This stark reality makes one thing clear – sexual violence is nothing short of a public health crisis. So why aren’t we treating it like one?
While lawmakers might be mired in gridlock and partisanship, this is one thing that the left, right and everyone in between can agree on – we must take steps to protect kids from sexual violence. It’s time for us to combat this issue head-on, and it’s up to Congress to lead the way.
The good news is that our elected leaders don’t need to look too far for solutions because survivors, experts and advocates from across the country have already created a roadmap – the National Blueprint to End Sexual Violence Against Children and Adolescents. The blueprint is comprehensive as it is urgent, centering on three central goals: prevention, healing and justice.
The patchwork of laws, programs and policies that are meant to protect children from sexual violence in the United States are inconsistent, underfunded and simply inadequate when it comes to addressing the extent of this pervasive issue. Without the strength and support of the federal government, the protections that a child might have in Hawaii, for example are different from the ones they might have in Colorado.
This fractured and unequal dynamic is exactly why we need lawmakers in Congress to step in and develop comprehensive national legislation that provides the resources, tools and expertise necessary to combat abuse, help survivors heal and keep kids safe.
That means expanding federal dollars for programs that we already know work such as those that help child-serving organizations implement abuse prevention training, and funding research that will help find new solutions to stop sexual abuse from occurring in the first place. Perhaps most impactfully, it means providing federal incentives for states to change and strengthen their own laws in order to increase the reach of trauma-informed care and evidence-based prevention.
These steps are commonsense and long overdue. Congress must play a leading and unifying role, but it’s on all of us to address this devastating issue. The White House can set the tone by declaring sexual violence against kids a public health emergency. Local legislators can strengthen state laws to protect kids in their home state. Summer camps, sports teams and religious organizations can enact policies that are known to help prevent abuse. And parents, caregivers and guardians across the country can stay aware, learn the signs of abuse and demand change from elected leaders because at every level, we each have the power to keep our children safe.
We’ve seen small glimmers of hope since the case involving Michigan State and USA Gymnastics was exposed, but we have much further to go.
Since then, the former doctor has gone to prison, hundreds of survivors have come forward to demand justice – and with each day, more light has been shed on the systemic failures that allowed hundreds of survivors like me to be abused. But sexual violence didn’t start or end at Michigan State. Its devastating impacts are felt every single day by millions across the country – from children being abused by those they trust, to adult survivors who are still struggling and learning to live with the lifelong trauma that was caused years ago.
Stories like these are far too common. But they shouldn’t be – and we all have the power to do something about it. Talking about this issue is just the first step. Now, it’s on all of us to turn this momentum into real, systemic change.
As we look toward Congress to do their part, I urge lawmakers in my home state of Michigan – who know this issue all too well – to be the leaders this issue so desperately needs. It’s time for Congress to do their part to help survivors heal, bring those who harm children to justice, and put an end to sexual violence faced by millions of kids across the country.
Grace French is a Larry Nassar survivor and founder of The Army of Survivors, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to end sexual violence against athletes.