5 Ways To Predator-Proof Your Child
by Christina Elston
Charges of child sexual abuse at Penn State in November, and this winter at the Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, serve as vivid and horrible reminders of a simple fact: It can be tough to keep our kids out of harm’s way. After all, if your children aren’t safe with a storied football coach or their classroom teacher, where are they safe?
Instances like the Penn State and Miramonte allegations are rare, but child predators are real. Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety awareness educator who has shared her Safely Ever After (www.safelyeverafter.com) program with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the child advocacy group “Parents for Megan’s Law,” approaches child safety as a series of rules, because that’s what children are used to. “That’s how kids get through their day,” she says.
One reason the events at Miramonte, especially, were disturbing to many is that the abuse didn’t involve the “strangers” or “bad touch” that parents might have warned their children about.
“This guy was playing secret games,” Fitzgerald says of one of the Miramonte teachers arrested amid allegations of molestation after several inappropriate photos of students surfaced. “One of the most important things is that parents teach their kids the ‘no secrets’ rule really early on.”
With that in mind, here are some strategies that parents can follow to protect their children:
• Teach your child that secrets are never OK.
Statistically, kids are most vulnerable to predators around ages 9-12, when parents start to give them a bit more freedom. But the children abused at Miramonte were only in second and third grade, an age where Fitzgerald says they are vulnerable “because they are very susceptible to keeping secrets.” So kids need to learn that even if Grandma wants to slide them an extra cookie on the sly, they should tell you about it – and they won’t get in trouble for doing so. “If a child hears the word ‘secret,’ it should be like an alarm going off in their head,” Fitzgerald says. “We don’t do secrets.”
• Teach your kids to trust their gut.
This goes beyond “bad touch” and “private parts.” Your children need to know that anything that gives them that “yucky uh-oh” feeling is wrong, and they can say no – even to an adult in charge. Anything they don’t like, even just someone putting an arm around them, is a “thumbs down” and they should tell the other person to stop and tell you all about it. “We don’t want to raise kids who are rude and obnoxious, but if we tell them always do what the grown-up says, that’s where we get into trouble,” says Fitzgerald.
• Be visible in your child’s life.
You don’t need to show up at every soccer practice or PTA meeting, but you should introduce yourself to every adult who is close to your child and let them know that you are watching. “That’s a deterrent,” says Fitzgerald, because predators know they can more safely target kids whose parents aren’t paying attention. So introduce yourself to the coach and let her know you’ll be stopping by to watch practice now and again. Meet the teacher and tell him you can’t wait to hear, every night at dinner, about all the activities going on in his classroom. “Your message is, ‘I’m involved, and we talk about stuff,’” Fitzgerald says.
• Monitor who your child is close to.
Your child’s teachers should be involved with her during classroom, and maybe some after-school, activities. Your child’s soccer coach should be involved with him during practices and games. Be wary of anyone blurring the normal boundaries of their relationship with your child, i.e. a teacher offering to take your child to the movies alone on a Saturday, a coach offering to “reward” his star player with a trip to the beach, or a custodian offering rides home from school. Set up rules for who is allowed one-on-one access to your child, and look out for anyone providing “disguised” favors that are over-the-top or not really appropriate. “It’s not about not trusting people,” says Fitzgerald, “it’s about not giving someone carte blanche with your child.”
• Keep communication flowing at home.
It’s a tall order, but your kids will be more likely to tell you about something that’s wrong if they are in the habit of talking to you about their day. Fitzgerald uses a game she calls “High-Low” to help make this happen. On the way home from school, over dinner, or at some other regular time, have everyone (you included) take turns sharing something about their day that was great, and something that wasn’t so great. Let the conversation flow from there.
If your child tells you about something that sounds suspicious, stay calm. “If your child sees you upset, they will think they did something wrong,” Fitzgerald says. Thank them for telling you, and ask gentle questions to see if you can get a bit more detail. “Did that bother you?” “It sounds like you didn’t like that game.”
When you’ve got the information you need, head right on down and check it out. Did your child’s account of a classroom activity bother you? “Go to the school and very firmly say, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’” Fitzgerald advises. That is a powerful statement and puts people on notice. If the activity is truly innocent, that should be the end of it. “A safe adult is going to stop.”
Fitzgerald points out that the kind of horrific abuse at Miramonte is rare, and that the abuser chose his victims with care. “He knew exactly which kids he could target and which kids he could not target,” she says. Educate your children and stay visible and involved in their lives, and they won’t look – or feel – like a target.
Posted February 2012