Elizabeth Smart weighs in on Penn State sex abuse scandal

Published November 14, 2011 4:42 pm

Kidnapping, abuse victim says children should be taughthow to fight back.
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Elizabeth Smart thought she only had two options when Brian David Mitchell crept into her Salt Lake City bedroom and abducted her at knifepoint in 2002.

"I thought I could stay in my bed and be killed and possibly have my family be killed or I thought I could get up and go with him," Smart said Monday. "I didn't realize I had other options."

On the steps of the Utah State Capitol on Monday, Smart said she wished she knew how to fight back —and wonders if the eight alleged victims of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky would have come forward to report sexual abuse sooner if they, too, had been encouraged to do so.

The 23-year-old Smart suggested the Penn State victims could benefited from a program Smart would like to see implemented in elementary schools called radKIDS [Resist Aggression Defensively]. The program teaches children about calling 911 and making defensive moves against attackers.

Smart on Monday implored President Barack Obama to appropriate more resources into investigating sexual abuse crimes against children.

Her remarks followed a weekend press conference held by Obama after the APEC summit in Hawaii on Sunday.

Obama said the Penn State scandal — in which Sandusky is accused of sexually abusing young boys while officials including former legendary coach Joe Paterno allegedly looked the other way — should serve as an example of the importance of protecting children.

Obama said when people see abuse happening, they should "step up."

Smart sent a letter to Obama on Nov. 9 asking the president to provide more funding to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which investigates sexual exploitation of children on the web. She also asked the president to declare a "national emergency" and allot resources for a "massive search and rescue operation" to help children trapped in abusive situations.

"I have tremendous compassion for the child sex abuse victims associated with the Penn State scandal and children who have been sexually abused anywhere," Smart said. "I believe the developments of the past week are an important wake up call. We as a country and our president and elected officials need to take drastic and immediate action to truly make protecting our children our number one priority."

Smart highlighted statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that show crimes related to child pornography are growing. About a half million people are trading images of children being raped and sexually abused, yet only 2 percent of those cases are being investigated, Smart said. She said children involved in the trade are being exploited and are "waiting to be rescued," which is why she is asking Obama for the emergency declaration.

Jessica Farnsworth, commander of Utah's ICAC, praised Smart's efforts to bring attention to the need for more ICAC funding.

Farnsworth said that in 2010 ICAC handled 746 investigations and is on pace to surpass that number in 2011.

"We're desperately in need of additional resources. We can't keep up with the magnitude of cases that come into our office on a daily basis," she said. Farnsworth said changing technology adds to officers' workloads. Whereas ICAC agents might have uncovered images on a computer, they now find full-length movies. Smart phones and other devices bring new ways for pedophiles to abuse children through trading pornography, she said.

"Every task force is getting cut. We're doing more with less. We're triaging cases right now, where we're going from one crisis to another crisis. Just last week, we had 3 after-hours emergency search warrants that involved children," Farnsworth said.

Smart also emphasized in her Monday speech that funding is needed for better self-defense programs in schools and explained her radKids program, which is based on three principles.

"First, you are special and nobody has the right to hurt you, including yourself. Second, not only are you special, but everybody else is special so you don't have the right to hurt them —unless they are hurting you and you can make them stop," Smart said. "Third, which in my opinion is the most important, is that it doesn't matter who it is ­— whether a teacher or parent or a friend — if someone is hurting you, inside or out, it is OK to tell and it is not your fault."

When a child understand these rules, Smart said, they understand what is acceptable behavior.

"They go from the mindset of "help me help me" to "you don't get to hurt me because I'm special," she said.

Smart has been increasingly visible in public discussions on how to prevent child abuse and help victims. She recently spoke at the 24th Conference on Child Abuse and Family Violence at the Davis Conference Center in Layton and said she traveled to New York and Washington D.C. earlier this month to work on child abuse prevention initiatives.

Smart testified her kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, raped her almost daily during nine months of captivity which included a journey to California and back to Utah. Smart was rescued, and Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, were arrested after the three were spotted on a Sandy street in March 2003.

Mitchell, 57, is serving a life sentence in prison. Barzee is serving time in a Texas prison for her role in the crime.

Smart is working with her Elizabeth Smart Foundation, aimed at protecting children from abuse with a focus on prevention, eduction, and promoting radKIDS.

In July, Smart signed on as a "contributor" to ABC News to help viewers "better understand missing-persons stories from the perspective of someone who really knows what the family experiences when a loved one goes missing," according to a network spokeswoman. She's on the payroll to be interviewed.

To date, Smart has contributed to four reports: A message to Jaycee Dugard on July 14; a report on a missing New Hampshire girl on July 29; a report about a missing Missouri baby ion Oct. 14; an a report on her crusade against cyber predators on Nov. 10.

Smart on Monday praised Obama for acknowledging the Penn State scandal over the weekend, but said there is more work to be done.

"I commend our president for taking a stance and ask all of America to take to heart his counsel," Smart said. "The very best way to protect our kids is to empower them ... our children need hands on training and experience to help be prepared and understand their options for any situation they might encounter."

— Scott D. Pierce contributed to this report.


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