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Alaska can learn from new movie 'Spotlight' how to bring abuse out of the shadows

  • Author: Trevor Storrs
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 27, 2015

The new Star Wars movie has grabbed everyone's attention. However, there is another must-see movie – "Spotlight." This new movie, directed by Thomas McCarthy, stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as the real-life Spotlight investigative journalist team for The Boston Globe. In 2001, they uncovered a pattern of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston and how the Catholic Church covered it up. While the church lays at the center of the scandal, the movie lays clear that the blame falls on all the members of the community who saw the signs and refused to acknowledge them.

We won't learn any specific strategies or solutions to prevent child abuse from this film, but it does teach one very important lesson about stopping it from happening: refusing to let it exist in the dark.

"If it takes a village to raise a child," says a lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, "it takes a village to abuse one."

Preventing child abuse is not the responsibility of children but the adults around them. When "we" as members of the community, as leaders, as parents, are willing and persistent about having real conversations about child abuse and neglect in our community, we can prevent those systems of silence from ever existing.

In "Spotlight," those who could have stopped this abuse but never spoke up were journalists, school administrators, lawyers, upstanding members of the community. There were complex reasons why these people refused to speak up about child abuse; It could endanger people's jobs, some people did not believe the church could be guilty of that, some people were frightened, and some people just had trouble talking about such a difficult topic.

We also see what happens when light is shined on this topic and people start talking about it. Those who were once silent have the courage to speak up. This transforms not only the survivors but the communities. Instead of being shadowy places where abuse can happen, they become vibrant, resilient communities that protect their children.

Alaska has consistently had one of the highest rates of child sexual abuse in the country, and a new study from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage says that the abuse of children in Alaska is even worse than the stats suggest. Alaska's geography and cultural diversity can make topics such as child sexual abuse difficult to talk about. That, however, is all the more reason to make sure that it is a topic we bring out into the open. The best way to reduce the number of children experiencing abuse is to have honest and open conversations about what is going on in our communities, which leads to awareness and, ultimately, change. The brilliance of that is that you don't need to be an expert or in a leadership position to do that. All you have to do is put children first.

Here are some steps that you can take in your community to start these conversations:

See "Spotlight." Urge other people to see it and use it as a stepping stone for discussion in your community.

Make sure that schools, day cares and other institutions in your community have child sexual abuse prevention guidelines in place.

Ask hard questions when something doesn't seem right in your community, and believe children when they tell you something is wrong.

Volunteer or donate to your local child abuse prevention organizations to support the work they are doing.

For more information about some of the efforts to prevent child abuse across Alaska, visit the Alaska Children's Trust's website at www.alaskachildrenstrust.org.

Trevor Storrs is the executive director of Alaska Children's Trust, a nonprofit working to prevent child abuse and neglect in Alaska.

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