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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Keeping Our Children Safe: Child Predators

I've always said that should if anyone tried to harm my child, in this way or any other, that he (or she) would be missing a significant number of limbs. I was once again reminded of this point today as I attended a child sex abuse workshop at my son's school. 
The video featured the testimony of victims, their parents, and the abusers themselves. At one point I literally wanted to reach through the television and strangle the bastard who sat there and detailed some of his exploits, including the fact that he had been abusing children since he was ten years old, and only got caught when he was 36. Horrible imagery raced through my head - the what-if's, the near-misses, who knows what. This is literally my worst fear as a parent. 
At first I thought the workshop sounded like a chore and I was dreading it. But I left there with a renewed sense of protection not only for my own children, but for other kids, too. And it helped me realize that even though a background check sounds extreme, or suspicions might be unfounded, you never know. Who wants to take that chance? I have nothing to hide; have at it if you feel that it's going to make your school all that much safer. After all, my son is just one of the many kids who will pass through its doors, and I'm glad they're doing that much more to make him safe, too. 
While I've had "the talk" with my son about this before, after this presentation I realized just how much more I needed to include in that talk. Like, not always is the perpetrator a stranger. Many children are molested by people they know, whether it's a friend or even a family member. The key point here is that the abuser often gains the trust of the entire family and community too, not just the child. So he (or she) has everyone fooled into believing it could never happen because they are so trustworthy, so upstanding - how could that be possible? Adults can often put blinders on to this behavior and ignore red flags and warning signs until it's too late. 
Which brings me to another point: not always are the abusers male. We tend to lump strange-looking men that we don't know into the possible child molester category, which isn't really fair: women can be molesters, too. One of the young victims on the video was actually abused by her female teacher. 
And not always do the abusers fit the typical disheveled, strung-out look that we might often associate with them. Both of the male abusers featured on the tape looked fairly normal, with normal interests, just like you and me. The one said he coached girls' softball for 15 years, played Santa at Christmastime, and operated a roller skating rink where children often congregated. The other was a parent who had children of his own, and when kids came over to play, he considered it an open opportunity to violate them. 
My husband and I are pretty hyper-vigilant about where our children are when we're out in public, who they're with and what they're doing. I've often wondered if I was paranoid or too over the top, but have decided I don't care - it's my job to be paranoid. Many times we've discussed different situations and scenarios that someone might pose, like getting into the car with someone, even if they offer you lots of candy or Thomas trains, which my son loves. Inappropriate touching is another subject I've recently broached, and also emphasized after seeing the video that it's not always adults, either, who engage in this. After all, the one abuser, as I mentioned, was ten when he started molesting children. His first victim was a five-year-old, the same age as my son. 
One predator admitted that he targeted children who met a certain age criteria and looked a certain way. I felt my skin crawl as I thought of my daughter, who fit his exact description. Another said he often looked for children who had a poor family life and who lacked a father figure, and typically those children are often lonely and seeking attention. Sadly, those kids' parents are the ones who need to hear this stuff the most in order to protect their children during a difficult time in their lives. 
Some takeaway points I left with and plan to share with anyone who will listen are this:
• Know where your children are, and who they are with. This reminds me of when we witnessed a small boy my son's age wandering around the mini golf course we were playing at the other day. He followed us for a couple of holes and then wandered off again, hopefully back with his family. How could they let him be so far away without concern? Were they even paying attention? I can't help but think this would have been a prime opportunity for someone with horrible intentions. 
• Limit access to your children. Whether it's through physical contact, the Internet (which is another topic entirely) or some other medium, there are plenty of outlets that predators are perfectly willing to take advantage of when parents let their guard down. The presenters also mentioned screening of volunteers like us, but included babysitters as well - people who we willingly let into our homes. 
• Know the warning signs of abuse, not only in children, but the abuser as well. Behavior changes and inappropriate touching are signs your child might exhibit, as well as not wanting to go certain places they normally would enjoy going to. Abusers might be people who want to spend a lot of time with kids and avoid adult interaction. They may also exhibit other inappropriate behaviors like wanting to be alone with kids or giving gifts to manipulate them. Don't always expect them to be overt signs like hugging and touching. 
One thing that really struck me with these people on the video was that they had no remorse for their actions. They seemed to actually be justifying their behavior, in a sense. They blamed the parents for not being attentive and recognizing the warning signs, completely absolving themselves of any guilt in the matter. One of them said he was only arrested after he turned in film to be developed that had nude pictures of his victims on it, and the developer called the authorities. One can ask, What was he thinking? The program emphasized that these people think the rules don't apply to them, that they are above the law somehow. Whatever the case, thank God for his stupidity, or who knows what would have happened. 
• If you suspect suspicious behavior, don't be afraid to come forward. And encourage your children to do so, also, if something happens to them. Talk to your kids, and, more importantly, listen to what they're trying to tell you. This sounds pretty obvious, but one victim on the tape was abused by a priest, and members of the parish had been suspicious of inappropriate behaviors leading up to the abuse. After the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, they only then came forward to say they had suspected something. Well, where were you when all this was going on? I wondered. Better to face a bit of embarrassment than completely ruin the life of a child to protect our own egos and reputations. I could never live with myself if I noticed these signs and yet did nothing about it. We have a job as adults to protect children, and if we misstep by accusing someone who isn't really guilty, we can issue our apologies later.