Apr. 2—This article is the first in a weekly series.
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Instead of enjoying the innocence of youth, many children in the Johnstown area endure a nightmarish day-to-day existence of sexual violation, beatings, verbal degradation and neglect.
The abuse can leave short- and long-term scars, both physical and mental.
Victims often develop depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, addictions, shame and fear that they will not be believed. The harming of children impacts the community, too, straining social services and the legal system, while on occasion tearing families, schools and neighborhoods apart.
“I think that, as a society, we like to not always pay attention to this stuff,” said Erika Brosig, chief operating officer at Victim Services Inc., which provides therapy and other assistance to people dealing with the effects of sexual assault, domestic violence and violent crime.
“These are the things that are hard to stomach, especially when it comes to children being hurt,” Brosig said. “It’s easier to turn a blind eye and think that it doesn’t happen in our area or in your specific neighborhood, but it happens everywhere, unfortunately — and to so many kids every year.”
The victims — first as children and often later as adults — suffer in silence, regardless of the type of abuse, because the “weight of the secret is shared by all these victims,” said Diana Grosik, executive director of Cambria County’s Circle of Support Child Advocacy Center.
Throughout April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, local organizations hope to bring attention to the issue and provide information to residents about how they can help.
“I think a lot of times when people hear about child abuse and neglect, it’s horrible, obviously,” Cambria County Children & Youth Services Administrator Michelle Rager said. “But there are a couple things. I think we need the community to be part of the solution. We want to be more of a proactive system versus a reactive system. We need the community to be partners in that.”
The Tribune-Democrat, as part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, is publishing a five-part series — “Preventing Child Abuse” — with a new article running every Saturday.
Network of support
Cambria County CYS, which conducts investigations and provides intervention, received 497 reports of suspected child abuse and 3,974 reports of suspected child neglect in 2021.
The organization handled cases involving 69 to 88 families — and 129 to 185 children — per month, according to numbers provided by the agency. As of last weekend, 92 children were placed in custody of a kinship foster home, traditional foster home or group home. That is in a county with a population of approximately 133,000.
When asked if most people likely understood the extent of local child abuse and neglect, Rager said, “Probably not.”
The Circle of Support Child Advocacy Center, which conducts investigations and fosters collaboration among agencies, provides services to more than 300 children a year, with the majority being sexual abuse victims.
Victim Services worked with 128 victims of child sexual violence in Cambria County and 109 in Somerset County from July 2021 through last weekend, according to Brosig. The agency provided services to 68 victims of childhood domestic violence in Cambria County and 20 in Somerset County during the same time.
CYS, Victim Services and Circle of Support, with other organizations, provide local support, while several national groups, including Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Road to Recovery, have been involved in the region, too.
“The players have always done their individual jobs really well, but when we work together we really come together as a team and try to support the child and the family through that entire process,” Brosig said. “That, I think, makes it less traumatizing and hopefully just a lot smoother for the families so there’s not as many hiccups.”
SNAP President Shaun Dougherty, a Westmont resident, said a unified effort is needed because “predators work in tandems, too.”
“For as hard as groups like SNAP and the Child Advocacy Center and Children and Youth are all working for the benefit of the children, the predators’ network, they’re working together to squash it,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty’s own abuse, under a redacted name, was included in a 2016 state grand jury report that provided in-depth details about decades of sexual abuse and cover-up within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. That investigation was among several high-profile child abuse cases in the region.
Brother Stephen Baker, a former trainer at what was then Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, sexually molested more than 100 children. Johnstown pediatrician Dr. Johnnie “Jack” Barto was sentenced to no less than 79 years and up to 158 years in prison after abusing generations of children, including Brosig.
And, in possibly the most well-known child abuse case ever, former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts, stemming from sexually abusing young boys from 1994 to 2009.
“We’re a target-rich environment for it — Pennsylvania, Cambria County and this region,” Dougherty said.
Grosik said those cases show how “child abusers are from all walks of life.”
“It’s all socioeconomic classes,” Grosik said. “It’s all ethnicities. It’s anyone and everyone. It’s both genders. We know that everyone does this to children.”
Grosik and Dougherty said a key to stopping predators is for people to believe children when they make accusations.
“The first thing everybody needs to understand is they have to learn empathy — try to put yourself into that child’s position,” said Dougherty, whose accusations were not believed when he originally made them.
“What would you need to hear? What would you need done? Politicians have an idea of what they need done, advocates and community leaders alike. But empathy is the first thing that child is going to need, understanding. He’s going to need to know that there are people in their lives that they are able to trust, because trust is something that’s broken at a young age when a child’s innocence is taken from them.”