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It was frustrating to watch yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, that was meant to examine the FBI’s extensive mis-handling of the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Maybe this is because I have worked with survivors of sexual abuse and I know the toll these sessions take on those who have to relive it. Maybe it’s because I am a survivor myself, who has worked hard to move past my PTSD, but has nevertheless found myself in a heightened phase of frustration from the lack of accountability and progress.
Regardless of the reason, I also know that if I was enraged at the complete absence of explanation from the government officials, tasked with protecting the entire American public, then many more who watched it and heard about it were also. I guarantee you there was a disproportionate number of women who felt like another punch to the gut was leveled at them — a sucker-punch in a long line of many.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” We were reminded of this by Simone Biles, who quoted Mandela in the first line of her opening statement. It was another reason why FBI Director Christopher Wray, giving no explanation as to how something like this could happen, was so maddening.
I was inspired to see these young women, so poised and brave, sit before Congress and read the most personal statements they have likely ever given to the public. Watching Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman explain, in great detail, how they attempted to report their abuser to law enforcement, only to be dismissed, overlooked and ultimately factually mis-represented in writing, was infuriating. I know from experience that the only way they were able to do that was to think about the other people they might be helping, those victims of sexual abuse who don’t have a voice.
The hearing started out well, and had some surprising bi-partisan support. I was even willing to overlook many of the initial hypocritical statements from Republicans on the panel, whose effusive statements were almost nauseating. I also found myself cheering on these young ladies in an odd way, because I could feel their stress and fear through the screen.
“Get it, Kayla,” is what I would say out loud to the screen. “You got this, Maggie,” is something I kept repeating. I realized I was cheering them on during their testimony in the same way I would have cheered them on at an Olympic event — because this hearing was likely ten times harder for them than any complex gymnastics routine.
When it became clear that the victim witnesses had answered fully, and had respectfully been given all the time they needed to make their important points, I began to get agitated. I could see the tension in their faces and the energy draining out of their bodies. Sadly, this is also something I understand all too well.
Aly Raisman even made a point to answer another Senator’s belabored statement that was framed into a question by saying, “I don’t think people realize how much experiencing a type of abuse is not something that one just suffers in the moment.” Raisman continued, “For example, being here today is taking everything I have. My main concern is I hope I have the energy even to just walk out of here. I don’t think people realize how much it affects us, how much the PTSD, how the trauma impacts us.”
This statement was no doubt in response to help the panel of senators, on both sides of the aisle, clue in that it was time to wrap up this portion of the hearing. The fact that those doing the questioning, predominantly men, seemed to have no idea about the emotional and physical exhaustion, even as it was happening before their eyes, with Aly Raisman specifically telling them, was a disgrace.
FBI Director Christopher Wray made a point to say that the actions of federal investigators were "totally unacceptable," but it was his refusal to show that he truly understood the systematic breakdown within his agency and any subsequent repair to the broken process that was the most unacceptable aspect of this. Instead, Wray told Senator Dick Durbin, "I don't have a good explanation for you," when he was asked how so many failures could occur within his office.
Wray also tried to rehabilitate his reputation by making a point to emphasize that an agent from the Indiana office had been fired. “When I received the inspector general's report and saw that the supervisory special agent in Indianapolis had failed to carry out even the most basic parts of the job, I immediately made sure he was no longer performing the functions of a special agent," Wray said. "And I can now tell you that individual no longer works for the FBI in any capacity."
This statement excludes the following critical information: Michael Langeman, the agent in question, was fired only days before the hearing, despite the Inspector General releasing his report in July that detailed the agent’s egregious offenses. Wray’s explanation for that, generally stated, was to basically say that he had to make sure he believed the victims first, indicating that the process to do so took four months. Special Agent in Charge W. Jay Abbott, who oversaw the work of Langeman in Indianapolis, was allowed to retire from his position and secure his full pension. Both men also refused to appear before the committee to answer questions.
The Director of the FBI had no real answer for the Senate on how two separate field offices could botch an investigation of the highest magnitude. Wray also could not give any real evidence to show that he had begun to take action on significant reforms within the bureau that included agents adhering to a standard for proper note and record keeping, which is a basic and fundamental legal task.
The standards appear to be incredibly low now for the FBI, which has failed this country with so many investigations, including failing to act on credible data obtained before January 6th that might have stopped the insurrection, and failing to properly investigate allegations of sexual abuse involving Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. These astounding errors reflect the need for an agency-wide overhaul in terms of procedure and staff.
One immediate solution comes to mind: hire more women. If President Biden dismissed Wray and immediately put a qualified woman in charge of the FBI, we might have a chance to balance out ongoing gender inequities. Better yet, hire a Black woman and really spark some meaningful change. Then, issue a mandate to create an agency that looks like this country so that everyone is represented. It’s time to officially cure the “pale, male, Yale” quota that continues to infect the federal government.
I also don’t want to wait very long for reform, a feeling I suspect many Americans are feeling right now on so many levels. You cannot call the FBI the "gold standard" in any sense after the last several years — you just can't. If we want to ever call it that again, we need total reform now that begins with the dismissal of Wray. I would like to revive the agency’s reputation, but I am no longer willing to stake any hope on it.
This is why we need to create a new, totally independent federal agency with the same level of law enforcement power and resources as the FBI, that focuses solely on children. This new agency would have specialists that are trained to serve kids and tend to younger victims. Professionals within this new agency could also branch out across all other federal government agencies to train everyone, including the Senate, on how to assist child victims in a way that does not create further trauma.
I’m interested in saving the soul of America, and like Mandela said, that starts with properly caring for all of our children. I don’t care exactly how we do it, just that it finally gets done. I have no confidence in the old guard systems that overlook the needs of minorities and women and children, so I’m not wasting any more energy on FBI reform.
When so many atrocious mistakes are made and too many grievous errors occur, and when those atrocities involve our kids, it’s time to burn things down and start over. “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The only way to reclaim the greatness that serves as the foundation of America’s soul is to put our children first for once — not in sentiment, but in action.
Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines, and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.
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