'My heart is broken' for victims of Penn State child sex abuse scandal, Elizabeth Smart says

Published: Monday, Nov. 14 2011 2:47 p.m. MST

Elizabeth Smart speaks about President Obama's weekend comments regarding the Penn State sexual abuse scandal on the south steps of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Kidnapping victim turned child advocate Elizabeth Smart said her heart was broken when she learned of the victims of the Penn State child abuse scandal.

"It makes me feel terrible any time I hear about a child being abused," Smart said at a press conference at the Utah State Capitol Monday afternoon. 

But news of the scandal also vaulted her into action. Smart called on President Obama Monday to declare "a national emergency" to rescue children who are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Smart said Obama needs to "put his money where his mouth is" in directing resources to protect children. 

Obama, in a Westwood One Radio interview on the Penn State child sex abuse scandal that aired Friday night, said, in part, that the entire country should "do some soul searching" about these events.

"People care about sports," Obama said. "It's important to us, but our No. 1 priority has to be protecting our kids. And every institution has to examine how they operate, and every individual has to take responsibility for making sure that our kids are protected."

Smart said if the nation's top priority is, indeed, protecting children, Obama and Congress should ensure that the work the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces are fully funded. Only 2 percent of these offenders are caught, mostly due to a lack of resources, she said.

Smart wrote a letter to Obama asking for his help in fully funding the PROTECT Our Children Act, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. in 2008.

Moreover, Smart said the radKIDS program backed by the Elizabeth Smart Foundation should be in every school in the country. The program teaches children to recognize, avoid and escape dangerous situations. Having these tools "would have made a difference to me," Smart said.

Adults have a responsibility to stand up on behalf of children when they suspect abuse, she said.

"If someone see abuse or knows about abuse or knows abuse is going on, we need to step up and report it," Smart said.

In Pennsylvania, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant to longtime football coach Joe Paterno, has been indicted with 40 charges related to the child sex abuse of eight boys over 15 years. One of the victims was as young as 7. Many of the alleged offenses took place on the Penn State campus.

The scandal cost Paterno and President Graham Spanier their jobs. They were fired because trustees felt they did not do enough to alert law enforcement authorities after an alleged assault by Sandusky in March 2002.

Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her parents' home in June 2002. She was held by her captors for nine months, enduring repeated sexual abuse.

Smart said the day after she was rescued her mother told her that her captor, Brian David Mitchell, may have taken nine months of her life from her but she must not allow him to take one more minute.

Smart said there is more for her to do in life. She now advises other victims "not to let it hold them back." 

Smart was 14 years old when she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home by Mitchell, a street preacher the family had hired as a handy man. Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, held her against her will for nine months. Smart was rescued when she and her abductors were spotted in Sandy in March 2003.

Smart testified against Mitchell and Barzee in court. Mitchell is serving a life sentence in federal prison in connection with kidnapping and rape. Barzee is serving a 15-year sentence in federal prison for her role in the offense.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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