It’s something no one wants to think about. It’s uncomfortable and filled with the idea of shame. But, as you read this article, a sexual predator has identified his next victim. As you consider this, remember that panic and denial are not the answers. Awareness and monitoring are the keys to keeping your children safe.
Characteristics of a Sex Offender
Sadly, there is no magic profile that allows us to identify sexual predators before they take action. “There has been some research trying to identify a profile for a child molester. What’s been found is that this is such a diverse group of people that it’s really impossible to detect a child molester just by their physical appearance, occupation, race or ethnicity,” explains Maureen Sanger, a local psychologist and clinician of 15 years. “The bottom line is that it’s very hard to detect a child molester.”
Frankie Cowan, clinical director at the Nashville Child Advocacy Center, agrees. Parents should watch for red flags such as adults who:
- Engage in frequent contact with kids such as wrestling and tickling.
- Act like children.
- Seem preoccupied with someone else’s child.
- Volunteer or spend their free time with kids when they don’t have a child.
- Want to take your child on special outings without a parent
- in attendance.
The “time alone” factor is especially important for sexual predators, says Sanger. “They make an effort to spend time with that child and particularly look for opportunities to do things alone or one-on-one with the child.” Jessica Giles, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, agrees. “Adults who are around your child should not want to be alone with your child.”
Grooming: The Predator’s Method
As these red flags suggest, children are rarely assaulted out of the blue. Indeed, says Sanger, “Sexual abuse in probably 80 or 90 percent of cases occurs between a child and a person that child knows. So this is not typically a stranger crime.”
Cowan agrees. “A child rarely is just attacked and sexually abused without something that’s led up to that, which we call ‘grooming.'”
Grooming refers to the predator’s efforts to get close to the child. As Sanger explains, “It’s a very purposeful, deliberate process that child molesters go through in order to gain access to a child and create opportunities to be alone with the child and eventually then being able to molest that child. One thing that is common in the grooming process is that it starts out with building the relationship and taking the child places, doing things with him, perhaps buying him things … the process really focuses on gaining that relationship.”
The predator doesn’t move directly to sexual conduct. After establishing the child’s trust, perpetrators will engage the child in activities that place them in physical contact with the child such as back rubs, tickling, wrestling and having the child sit on his lap.
The offender is “starting to kind of break down some of those boundaries,” explains Sanger.
“Then it continues to progress from non-sexual touching to sexual touching. And all the while kind of seducing the child, letting the child know that it’s OK, that it’s a secret. So there’s a lot of kind of psychological manipulation that is going on as well.” For the predator, the culmination of this manipulation is repeated sexual assault of the child.
Awareness: Detecting Possible Abuse
The fact that sexual predators exist in our society means that parents must watch for cues that something may be amiss with their children. One misconception is that obvious physical signs will accompany sexual abuse. Not true, says Giles. “You rarely are going to see outward evidence.”
Sanger agrees that there are no hard and fast signs. “Different children respond very differently to an experience of sexual abuse.” Sanger suggests, however, that parents watch for the following signs of stress in their children:
- Conduct problems
- Regression to an earlier stage of development like thumb sucking or toileting accidents, or becoming more clingy
- Drop in school grades
- Sexualized behavior that is not normal for the child’s stage of development although there is a wide range of normal sexual behavior in kids.
- Shift in eating habits
- Decreased self-esteem
These behaviors, says Sanger, are “not specific to sexual abuse, but they are signals that something is distressing the child. And one possibility is sexual abuse.”
Giles summarizes, “You look for your child to carry his body in a different way, to suddenly act out or seem extremely depressed or tearful, or to be afraid of someone they were never afraid of before, or to be afraid of certain places. You’re really looking for something that is a shift in your child.”
Watching for these cues is critical because predators scare children into not talking by threatening to hurt them or their parents. If you suspect abuse, “Get your child to a pediatrician that you trust,” says Giles, because you need to know that your child is healthy. The pediatrician can then refer you to a counselor or clinical psychologist.
Despite kids’ fears about reporting sexual abuse, parents can increase the chance that kids will tell by clearly stating that they will always believe the child and will listen without judgment. Then, parents must follow through, says Giles.
Kids must have faith in the parents’ ability to handle the situation. Referring to parents, Cowan says, “First of all they need to believe even though it’s hard. And most of all just reassure the child that they (the parents) are strong enough to handle this, because that’s one of the reasons kids don’t tell; they don’t want to upset their parents. Just do more listening than asking questions.” Another technique is for parents to say “It’s never OK for anyone to tell you something that they say you can’t talk to me about,” says Giles.
Finally, it’s important to stress that no one has the right to touch the child inappropriately. Cowan recounts a case in which a parent instructed the child to report any inappropriate touching. Initially, the child said nothing. “But, when the mother finally added ‘including people in your own family,’ that’s kind of what broke the ice and allowed the child to tell.”
An emphasis on who does and does not have the right to touch the child is equally important for prevention, says Cowan, “So that’s important to tell children when you’re talking about prevention. ‘Nobody’ includes your own family.”
Giles reminds parents that some predators are cautious, making it difficult to detect malicious intentions. “Sometimes, the only thing you might know is from kids. And I really believe that you should listen to kids when they say they don’t want to go to the uncle’s house because he is scary. Or if they say ‘I don’t want to go to the neighbor’s.'” When a child expresses concern or discomfort, “that’s an opportunity for information gathering,” says Giles.
While not foolproof, closely monitoring your child is the most effective deterrent to child molesters. Cowan advises parents to “know where your child is and what he’s doing.”
Giles agrees, “The fundamental issue here is that you cannot abuse a child if you lack opportunity.” In short, the keys to prevention are awareness and knowing how to keep kids out of high-risk situations. While we can’t eliminate sexual abuse, “We have knowledge now of reducing the risks for kids,” says Sanger.
Eric Olive is a freelance writer.
Nashville Child Advocacy Center
1264 Foster Ave., Nashville
Our Kids Center
1804 Hayes St., Nashville
341-4917 (administration); 341-4911 (clinic)
Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee
1120 Glendale Lane, Nashville
800-356-6767 • www.pcat.org
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services
Cordell Hull Building, 7th Floor, Nashville
General Questions: 741-9699
Report Child Abuse: 1-877-237-0004
Tennessee Sexual Offender Registry
Identifying Child Molesters
By Carla Van Dam
(Haworth Press, $29.95)
Protecting your Children from Sexual Predators
By Leigh Baker
(St. Martin’s Press, $24.95)
Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders:
Who They Are, How They Operate, and How We Can Protect
Ourselves and Our Children
By Anna C. Salter
(Basic Books, $14.95)