By Marie Wolf
Child molesters. They’re out there – men and women, young and old, who sexually exploit children. Did you know that 1-in-5 girls and 1-in-10 boys are sexually abused before they reach adulthood? That from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which also reveals that, sadly, less than 35 percent of those assaults are ever reported.
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Did you know that on Long Island in the state of New York, there are hundreds of registered sex offenders living in Nassau and Suffolk counties who have already committed heinous crimes against young children? At this moment, you can find detailed information about Long Island’s Level 2 (moderate risk) and Level 3 (high risk) offenders by simply logging on to the Internet and accessing the New York Sex Offender Internet Registry. There, you can read about a 31-year-old Suffolk babysitter – a female – who was convicted of raping a 10-year-old boy in her care. Or, the North Shore man who was found to have had sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old girl – more than once – before he was caught. And, there’s the report about the senior citizen living in a Nassau beach community who coerced his 15-year-old victim into a get-together by befriending him over the Internet. Upon meeting, the boy was forcibly raped.
It’s ugly to read about – disgusting to imagine – but the facts are there for parents to research and learn from. Today, law enforcement, child advocates and educators warn that it is not enough to teach our children to be suspicious of strangers. Parents need to become more proactive in identifying a child molester’s tricks of the trade – stranger or not – before he attempts to hurt their children.
Fighting Back in Their Own Backyard
Try to imagine the horror of a South Shore couple who moved from one end of town to the other five years ago to upgrade to a bigger home near the water, in a more desirable neighborhood. Two days after they settled in with their 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, Rose and Steven (not their real names) received notification that a Level 3 sex offender had just been released from prison and was living within their zip code.
“My husband and I didn’t know what to do. It was a private sale, and we were never told, so we went on the Web site, put in our zip code and found out this guy was living 12 houses away!” Rose adds, “We wanted to go to the neighbors, band together and let him know we were on to him, but you know, you can’t harass them [convicted sex offenders]. You can’t violate their rights.”
Instead, the couple sat down with their children and showed them the sex offender’s photo so they would recognize him if he ever tried to approach them. Rather than broach the sexual nature of his crime (because the children were so young), Rose and Steven reviewed “stranger danger” rules. “We told the kids that if he ever came near them at the bus stop, they should scream for help, and they were not allowed to play outside without a grown-up supervising.” Rose adds, “We put a fence around our entire house just to be safe.” For this family, it’s about constant vigilance.
Who Are They?
Although a number of sexual crimes against children are committed by strangers who cruise by schools, playgrounds and in neighborhoods, the majority of offenses are committed by the least likely suspects.
“It could be the coach, the teacher, the neighbor – or a relative,” says Alane Fagin, M.S., who is the executive director of Roslyn-based Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS). “It [child molestation] is a huge problem here, like any other place in the country. We know how many have been incarcerated, we don’t know how many are out there.” From what she’s learned in the field, however, Fagin says, “80 percent of all sex abuse is committed by people known to the child.”
Parents for Megan’s Law Founder, Laura Ahearn, C.S.W., adds, “Teaching kids about ‘stranger danger’ is dangerous. It is not the stereotypical, one-armed guy hanging from a tree,” says Ahearn. “He looks just like you and me.” She recalls a comment made by one sexual offender.
“Parents can be so naïve. They are worried about the neighbor, when it could be someone in their own home or family.”
Ahearn adds, “It’s not about being a stranger, it’s more about actions and situations.” The organization offers “Apple of My Eye” sexual abuse prevention workshops for children, parents and adults who work with children, including teachers, childcare providers and coaches. Ahearn notes that employees of Laidlaw, the school bus operator, recently attended a prevention workshop.
How Do They Do It?
Pedophile is the term used to describe an adult who engages in sexual activity with a chil. Information from the Parents for Megan’s Law Web site pinpoints the “true seducer” type pedophile: “He puts himself in a position in his community where he has easy access to children. He will often work hard (sometimes for years) to gain the trust of parents while at the same time be sexually abusing their child.”
These are the words of another abuser, a church volunteer:
“Some of the things I did to get the kids to trust me was just – just being their buddy – talking child talk with them where they didn’t feel like they were talking to an adult, which would make them more respectful and more scared of an adult. I was talking to them just as a kid to them. And I would play their little games that they did and just talk to them in such a way that they thought I was just a kid, which broke down all the inhibitions of “Beware of adults.” Plus, I was the guy from the church, so there was no reason they had not to trust me when I said, “Well, come here, sit in my lap.” And they would just come up there and sit in my lap without thinking that there was any kind of evil, perverted attitudes in my mind.”
(© National Catholic Services, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.)
He appeared in the educational video, A Time to Protect God’s Children™, produced by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc. Through their Virtus® programs, designed to “help prevent wrongdoing and promote ‘rightdoing’ within religious organizations,” employees as well as volunteers of Catholic parishes across the country are now required to undergo background checks and complete a child sexual abuse prevention training program.
Safety begins at home though, and in order for parents to protect their children, healthy boundaries must be set, explains Ahearn. A red flag to parents that inappropriate behavior may be in the workings: “Anybody who wants to spend more time with your child than you – the parent – watch out!” Ahearn adds, “Emotionally, everybody has a role in your child’s life. Be clear about your role as a parent.” And watch, Ahearn warns, for those who step out of their roles. She offers these scenarios:
• A baseball coach offers your child transportation to practice, without other children. He gives your child gifts. He tells him he is special. “This is outside of his role. His role is clear. He is to teach baseball,” says Ahearn.
• A teacher offers to take your child on an educational outing, alone. He gives educational gifts, only to your child. “This is outside his role. His role is clear. He is to teach your child.”
• A pediatrician’s role is to treat a child medically.
• A priest’s role is to offer a child spiritual guidance.
“As a parent, you allow your child to establish healthy relationships with adults, but any blurry boundary (a family in crisis) is an opportunity for a child molester to step in.” Ahearn’s motto? “Trust everyone, but you only trust them within the boundaries of the role they play.”
Educate Kids Sooner Rather Than Later
“The key is always to start young,” says Fagin. “As parents, we teach fire safety and how to cross the street. It’s just another form of personal safety.” CAPS received funding recently for a new program geared to children in grades 2 and 3 called “Safety Rules! Staying Safe When You’re In, Out and All About.” The program touches on sexual abuse. “We’ll cover “good touch,” “bad touch” and “confusing touch.” Children need to trust their instincts, Fagin explains. “And parents,” she adds “should not be lulled into a false sense of security thinking that Megan’s Law is keeping up with all these offenders. The vast majority of them have not been arrested.”
Fortunately, a sizeable number of Long Island parents are actively seeking information. When Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip unveiled their new “Stranger Safety” program last November, “On Applebee Pond,” more than 400 parents, teachers, students and scouts attended the free presentation. “On Applebee Pond” is a puppet show that entertains school-age kids while sharing tips on how to avoid strangers, what to do if a stranger approaches and who to turn to for help. The program is a joint project between the hospital, Matthew Barbis and Company and the Rose Brucia Educational Fund. It is dedicated to the memory of Carly Brucia, an 11-year-old from Florida, who was abducted while walking home alone from a friend’s house and later murdered.
The program is now being offered in elementary schools. Laura Meehan, public relations coordinator for Good Samaritan, says, “the calls keep coming in – schools, organizations – everyone is interested in it.”
What can we do in the home to educate our kids? Childhelp USA, an organization that offers support to children who have been abused or neglected, offers prevention tips for parents and children so they can learn how to identify an abusive situation and hopefully nip it in the bud. Tell your child:
• Touching: when someone touches your private parts – those parts covered by a bathing suit – in a manner that hurts or makes you feel uncomfortable, that is sexual abuse. If someone makes you touch his or her private parts, that is also considered abuse.
• Nude Photos: If someone shows you nude photos of adults or children touching each other, or if someone takes a picture of you without your clothes on – that is abuse.
• Don’t be alone with someone you don’t feel safe with.
• Listen to the voice inside when it says that what’s being done to you isn’t right.
• Talk to an adult you trust and tell them what is happening. If they don’t believe you, keep telling until someone does believe you.
What Parents Need to Know
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assures parents and children that it’s important to be alert and prepared but not to be afraid. “The possibility that your child will be missing or sexually exploited is remote.” In any case, keep these tips in mind:
• Older children, ages 11 to 17, are equally at risk of abuse. While giving them more freedom, be sure they understand safety rules as well.
• Children should always check with a parent before accepting anything, including a ride or a gift.
• While playing outside, children should always be with a buddy, never alone.
• Be sensitive to any changes in your child’s behavior or attitude. Younger children may begin thumb sucking, have sleepless nights or have a fear of adults. Older kids may turn to drugs, alcohol or promiscuity.
• If your child shares a concern with you, try to remain calm and non-judgmental, then call law enforcement for help.
As Laura Ahearn says, “Nobody should be making a child the apple of their eye – except a parent!”
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Marie Wolf is a former editor for United PArenting Publications.