Children have a right to be protected from harm. This includes the right to be protected from being physically abused, sexually abused, neglected, or killed.

And yet, as a nation, we are failing to do the job of protecting our children.

Just last month, physician Dr. Larry Nassar, who was affiliated with USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University (MSU), was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison after more than 200 girls and young women, including USA gold medalists Simone BilesAly RaismanGabby Douglas, and McKayla Maroney, have spoken out about Dr. Nassar’s abuse of them over a period of two decades.

Despite numerous reports by children and young women to adults in positions of power, Dr. Nassar was allowed to continue to maintain his positions with both USA Gymnastics and MSU. The victims told horrific stories, and yet, over the course of years, numerous adults had been told but refused to really listen. Institutions repeatedly chose to look the other away.

Source: The Indianapolis Star that broke this story in 2016.

Reports of abuse including young athletes at MSU where Dr. Nassar worked. Amanda Thomashow, a cheerleader at the university, filed an official Title IX complaint against Nassar accusing him of violating the school’s sexual harassment policy back in 2014.

CNN reports that, among a number of disturbing issues with the university’s handling of the matter, MSU failed to even report the case to the Department of Education despite having signed a previous agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to report all reported allegations of sexual assault claims to the agency.

Thomashow said:

I think that the way that my investigation was handled was not in a way to bring out the truth, but instead it was performed in a way to conceal and protect a pedophile.

Growing evidence indicate that staff at the university were repeatedly told about Nassar’s behavior and abuse over the years, and yet, as softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez explains in a civil lawsuit filed against the university, they were told by MSU staff that his behavior “was not sexual abuse, that Nassar was a world renowned doctor, and that the plaintiff was not to discuss what happened with Nassar and was to continue seeing him. . . .”

In March 2017, Michigan State University Trustee Joel Ferguson insisted that the investigation into the allegations involving Dr. Nassar would show that his actions were his alone and that Michigan State would be cleared and that “MSU’s going to look great,” despite evidence that gymnasts had reported abuse to MSU staff back in 1997.

Sadly, our society simply refuses to hear allegations of misconduct and abuse involving our children. Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to file a police complaint against Dr. Nassar, explains in a New York Times Op-Ed that some adults had been notified about Nassar’s abuse over 20 years ago:

More than 200 women have now alleged abuse by Larry Nassar. Even more staggering than that number is the revelation that at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse. What is truly stomach-turning is the realization that a vast majority of those victims were abused after his conduct was first reported by two teenagers to M.S.U.’s head gymnastics coach as far back as 1997.

Denhollander explains that research shows “pedophiles are also reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.” In fact, some parents of children abused by Nassar dismissed the complaints by their own children.

Children who are abused or sexually assaulted must not be denied the right to speak out against that violence and abuse. But it is equally important to understand that, if adults are going to fulfill their obligations to protect children and to promote their best interests, they need to really listen to the children themselves. In other words, children have the right to be heard.

It may even take further litigation to protect children.

Other recent examples include the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reported by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight unit that forced the Church to finally acknowledge the crimes of its clergy over numerous years and to begin to address its failings, the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State, and recent allegations involving USA Swimming.

Denhollander concludes that society must do more to listen to and protect children who speak out:

Most important, we need to encourage and support those brave enough to speak out. Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.

The right of children to express their experiences and viewpoints and to have them listened to and taken seriously is a powerful tool through which to challenge incidents of violence, abuse, threats, injustice, or discrimination. Children who are silenced or ignored cannot challenge violence and abuse perpetuated against them. In fact, the consequence of the silencing or dismissal of the voices of children and the abuse they experience has the effect of protecting the abusers rather than the children.

In Australia, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held 57 public hearings over 444 days with over 1,300 witnesses speaking about child sexual abuse. According to Matthew Ricketson and Jennifer Martin, who examined the findings in an article for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University:

What is important to underscore is the fact that at the centre of every instance of child sexual abuse examined by the commission is a socially sanctioned imbalance of power between the child and those charged with the responsibility of looking after them.

The flood of testimony by adult survivors of abuse over the past four and a half years [in Australia] has revealed many things, not least an unintentionally and bitterly ironic illustration of the original problem of power imbalance. When adults testify to their abuse, they are usually believed; when children, especially those in the care of institutions, testify, they often aren’t. Yet that is when they most need to be heard because that is when they are most vulnerable.

Children have just as much of a right to speak out and have their views respected as anybody else in society, particularly about those things that impact them directly. Violence against children in families, schools, prisons, and institutions can best to tackled if children themselves are enabled and encouraged to tell their stories and be heard by those people with the authority to take action.

For example, to protect children from online sexual abuse and exploitation, it is important and critical that policymakers engage with children to understand how they use the Internet, the degrees and nature of the risk they face on-line, and the policies that they would think would best work to protect them.

Likewise, children with disabilities are the greatest source of knowledge with respect to the discrimination and social exclusion that they face in society and in school settings. These children can be the most effective contributors to identifying the barriers and challenges they face in order to be successful.

Just this past week, the Kentucky legislature finally began the process of protecting children from being subjected to forced marriages. And yet, the legislation has been stalled — not out of concern for the protection of children — but to issues raised by the conservative organization Kentucky Family Foundation about parental rights in these decisions.

One might ask where the voice, the best interest, and the rights of children are being properly considered. As Kentucky Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) said:

It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults. We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.

Meanwhile, in the case of the forced detention of young children who are fleeing violence, rape, and possibly death in Central America and the separation of them from their parents despite their request for asylum, the voice and best interests of children are clearly being ignored, once again.

“Studies overwhelmingly demonstrate the irreparable harm to children caused by separation from their parents,” write Galacatos, Alan Shapiro, and Brett Stark in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. “Family separation . . . can lead to chronic conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and heart disease. For that reason, more than 200 child welfare, juvenile justice and child development organizations (including First Focus) signed a letterdemanding that the Trump administration abandon this ill-conceived policy.” They haven’t.

This also includes the case of children who have knowledge and experience with violence — both inside and outside of school. In the case of school shootings, only they and their teachers know what it is really like.

Our political leaders are clueless. President Trump brags that he would have run into the building without a weapon to challenge the gunman, and members of the Florida legislature tried to avoid discussions about assault weapons, bump stocks, and closing loopholes in background checks by changing the subject to other issues like video games and offering “thoughts and prayers.”

It is these students and not the politicians that know what it is like to be on the other end of an assault rifle and who saw their teachers and fellow classmates protect the lives of thousands of kids across the campus. The students and teachers at Stoneman Douglas High School are undoubtedly far greater experts than our lawmakers in understanding what happens in those environments and their expertise needs to be acknowledged when developing laws and policies to reduce exposure to risk.

And yet, they haven’t thus far. The President and the Florida legislature keep pushing to arm teachers despite the fact that school shooting survivors and most teachers oppose it and support other solutions that legislators have ignored for years.

The public agrees with the students and school administrators. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Florida voters oppose arming teachers by a 56–40 percent margin.

Lawmakers also ignore growing evidence that indicate NRA-backed gun policies, such as “stand your ground laws” and permissive concealed carry laws, increase homicides, suicide, violent crime, and accidental firearm injury. In this, our politicians are failing all of us.

Sadly and astonishingly, other adults have chosen to troll the students whose classmates, best friends, and teachers were murdered. Fortunately, it is backfiring.

These kids have been incredible at defending themselves. Here and here are samples of their excellent clapbacks.

Frankly, the students are far too savvy for their Fox News obsessed elders. They are wisely ignoring the trolls. But when they do respond, it is with the perfect mix of facts, attitude, and sass that are used to either reason with, mock, or shame their opponents. Heck, I truly wish I were half as good as the Stoneman Douglas kids.

In the meantime, the adults of this country should be doing a great deal of introspection and soul-searching at this moment in time.

It is our generation that failed the children that have been molested and sexually abused by adult predators and pedophiles. It is our generation that is investing less and less in their education and well-being. It is our generation that is destroying the environment. It is our generation that has allowed child deaths in this nation to exceed those in other wealthy country by an astounding 70 percent. It is our generation that has put unrestricted gun ownership ahead of the lives and safety of our children.

We have repeatedly failed our kids.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of policymakers that get it. Politicians from both political parties have been meeting with the students in the last few weeks in Washington, D.C., and in Tallahassee, Florida. They understand the importance of hearing from and listening to young people from all over this country.

They understand that respecting the voice of children doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything they say.

But the fact is that children have a stake in what happens in this country now and for decades to come. Frankly, listening to them and hearing them out is only humane, fair, and smart thing to do. It is our best hope for the future.

Jaclyn Corin tweets, “. . . we’ve created a new hope for succeeding generations.” There is no doubt, and we must hear their voice.