Time and time again, when child-porn rings are exposed and arrests are made, people act shocked when it’s revealed that the perpetrators worked around children. How could such a well-respected priest/rabbi/cop/teacher/youth counselor/coach do such a thing? How could someone who professes to love kids as much as he or she did abuse their trust and victimize their children?
Who would possibly still wonder either of those things in 2014?
Hopefully no one who has a child.
Child predators are not usually lurking in the bushes at the playground wearing raincoats. They look just like you and me, and many of them cleverly chose professions that would give them access to plentiful supplies of children to abuse.
Not a pleasant thought, surely, but that’s the reality.
By some estimates, 90 percent of sexually abused kids knew their abusers. Approximately 40 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by family members and 40 percent by larger or older youth known to the victims.
In an article tiled “Eight Common Myths About Child Sexual Abuse,” the Leadership Council says that child sex abusers “also tend to adopt a pattern of socially responsible and caring behavior in public. Many have practiced and perfected their ability to charm, to be likeable and to radiate a facade of sincerity and truthfulness. This causes parents and others to drop their guard, allowing the sex offender easy and recurring access to children.”
They are often highly intelligent, seasoned manipulators. Therefore, if positioning yourself as a trusted pillar of the community affords you greater power with which to manipulate children and their parents to let you continue your sexual abuse, it isn’t shocking that you are a pillar. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense.
The longer the myth persists that pedophiles are creepy park lurkers and not people kids probably know and trust, the more difficult it is to protect children.
I got in touch with Joan Tabachnick, director of educational Initiatives NEARI Press, a nonprofit publishing company and training center for professionals working with youth with sexually abusive and other risky behaviors, who offered some insight for helping to keep kids safe from sexual predators:
Daily Banter: How can parents teach kids to be respectful of adults but sound an alarm if an adult behaves inappropriately toward them?
Joan Tabachnick: First, it is important to know that 30 percent to 50 percent of children are sexually abused by other children or teens. So part of respect is teaching about boundaries, and it needs to be developmentally appropriate. But begin the day they are born, using the names for body parts. When they get older, talk about the fact that no one has the right to touch you, and you don’t have the right to touch others. Put the focus on boundaries.
Sadly, the children most vulnerable to sexual abuse are often the kids without guidance or support at home. What is your recommendation for how schools should deal with sexual abuse education (if you think schools should at all)?
Yes, there is a growing body of work showing that organizations make a difference. Look at the Gatekeepers for Kids by the enough abuse campaign or the CDC document around child sexual abuse within youth-serving organizations.
What do you find is the advice or insight about child sex abusers that tends to surprise parents most?
People who abuse can be anyone. Not so much a surprise, but push them to understand that the dirty old man on the edge of the playground or younger man lurking on the internet is not the person they should be concerned about. What surprises them is all of the little ways that they are or are not setting limits or confronting behaviors in their daily life. For example, when Uncle Henry tickles their daughter and she does not like it, do they say, ‘Henry doesn’t mean anything by it,’ or are they willing to step in and model for their daughter by saying to Uncle Henry that the girl does not seem to like this and the family wants to promote good boundaries?
I read of another example, where say a music teacher offers to pick up a child after school if a parent can’t get the child to the music class. This was an example of a broken boundary because it was out of the normal scope of the person’s role. Can you tell me more about the subtle ways parents can reinforce boundaries?
In the case you suggest, I don’t have a problem with it if the parent says, I need some help and no other parent is around. But it is a problem when that happens again and again. Or there is other subtle boundary breaking that is evident. A researcher in England shared some research with me once where he interviewed sex offenders who sexually abused children within youth-serving organizations. He found that a pattern where they would abuse in one organization, move to the next one and not abuse and then in a third abuse again. When asked why they did not abuse in the second organization, the abuser said that it was not “safe” for them. When they began to break boundaries, their supervisor observed that and asked them to stop. When they stretched the rules, they were confronted with that and given a warning.
My kids were in a youth group and they had a youth leader who was engaged, fun to be with, etc. Everything you would want in a youth leader in many ways. But then as parents, we heard that he was sharing a lot of information about his personal life with the kids. He was given a warning about that. Was it just that he was unaware of what the rules were? But then after a few weeks, he started doing it again. Then he was asked to leave.
I also read that generally telling children that they shouldn’t keep secrets is helpful (as opposed to trying to teach them that there are good secrets and bad secrets). Do you agree?
I find that it is a good way to talk about the issue with young kids. But usually, I like to say that it is OK to keep secrets if it is just, say, for an afternoon (e.g., planning a surprise bday cake for mom). It is not OK to keep secrets in the family for a long time. Then you don’t have to know the difference between good and bad secrets. Longer story, but kids have a hard time with that (e.g., if the priest tells you to keep a secret then it must be OK because he is a good man of God).
You mentioned that guidance for protecting kids from sexually abusive behaviors should be age-appropriate. Could you offer a couple of examples? What is a good thing to advise a 5 year old? A 10 year old?
For very young kids, just giving them the names for body parts is great. As they get older (e.g. age 5) and a boy is touching himself, start to tell him it is OK, but “private parts in private places.”
For a 7-year-old: No one has the right to touch you and you don’t have the right to touch anyone else. For a 10-year-old, I might begin to teach about consent (depending upon their developmental level), such as, “How do you ask someone if they want to hold hands or kiss?”
Toni Cavanagh Johnson has a great chart for understanding healthy sexual development in kids. She frames it as healthy behaviors, problematic behaviors and abusive behaviors. When I give workshops I talk about red-light, yellow-light and green-light behaviors.
To this I will add: Tell your kids that they would never get in trouble if they were to tell you about abuse, no matter who it is. Tell them that anyone who tells them otherwise is lying. Tell them that if something makes them feel icky or uncomfortable, they have nothing to be ashamed of and should tell you as soon as possible.
Do your best to listen to nonverbal cues, too. If your child suddenly can’t stand going to karate class or staying at Auntie’s house after school, try to find out why.
And remember this, which Laura A. Ahearn, LMSW and executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center, wrote in the conclusion of her guide for parents:
If a child comes forward about abuse, “It is often too emotionally difficult for families who trusted and allowed the accused into their home to believe that he could commit such an act against a child. The betrayal is too great and many families will not only deny the possibility, but will blame and defame the child making the allegation. This is what the offender counts on. Families tricked by cunning predators could not have possibly imagined the degree of betrayal possible and the extent that a predator would go to, to get at a child.”
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.