From time to time, I meet with child sexual abusers who are in offender groups, both in and out of prison.
I participate in the groups to better understand child sexual abuse, so I can better equip parents and professionals to prevent it. It’s never easy to hear the stories, but the men and women I meet welcome my questions and want me to share their comments with you, so you know what to look for and how to protect your child.
#1 – “We can be anyone.”
Some, but not all, were sexually abused themselves as children, and some started abusing children when they were teens.
What these offenders want you to know is that people who sexually abuse children are already in your lives, and they already have your love and trust and your child’s love and trust. In fact, 90 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows – and not by strangers, as commonly thought.
Child sexual abuse takes place in homes, youth organizations, schools, camps, places of faith – any place children are alone with adults, whom they come to know and trust.
Statistically, one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. But here’s the good news: Child sexual abuse can be prevented when parents learn about the behaviors to watch for and diligently communicate with all caregivers about boundaries and body safety.
#2 – “Pay attention to our behaviors.”
“The kids I abused were all seeking love. I would shower the child with gifts, special treatment and attention, and painstakingly move toward the moment when I could gain compliance and cross the line.”
In some instances, the parent is also being groomed through a level of generosity that is probably too good to be true. This might include free babysitting, excessive willingness to “help out,” and even financial support.
Fortunately, you can learn to recognize grooming behaviors. Some common ones include: Favoring children and going out of one’s way to spend time alone with a child, special treatment, allowing kids to break rules, gift‐giving, lots of attention, a listening ear, taking a child’s side, manipulation, and introducing kids to sexual material or talking about sex (i.e., sexualizing the relationship).
Thirty to 50 percent of abuse is committed by youth, so pay attention to these behaviors in both teens and adults.
#3 – “We’re really good at what we do, so speak up.”
“Parents have to pay attention to the people who are spending time with their children. If someone had talked to me about boundaries, I wouldn’t have offended my relative.”
People who sexually abuse children actually run in a different direction if they see that the parent is involved and the child is educated. In the words of one man,
“If I drive up to a bank and see cop cars, I'm going to move on. I'll go down the street and rob a different bank.”
Parents tell me it’s so much harder to speak with the people they know, but this child sexual abuser makes it very clear that you have to be willing to speak with friends and family members:
“If you see someone, even a family member, spending a lot of time with your child instead of his or her own peers, ask why. Parents would have no problem interrupting a stranger with their child, but they are uncomfortable asking Uncle Joe.”
By not bringing ‘Uncle Joe’ onto your prevention team, your child is vulnerable. Yet time and time again,parents tell me that they are nervous inviting a relative, or any caregiver for that matter, onto their prevention team. Parents tell me they worry about offending a relative, sounding “over protective” with a teacher, or accusatory with another parent.
Here’s my question to you: Are you willing to feel a little uncomfortable so your children don’t have to?
Tips for Inviting Caregivers onto Your Prevention Team
- Normalize the conversation. Inviting someone onto your prevention team isn’t about “grilling” a caregiver; it’s a conversation – an extension of the safety discussions you’re probably already having about other topics like allergies, wearing bike helmets, and so forth.
- Let the other person (e.g., parent, teacher, counselor, coach) know that you talk with all of your child’s caregivers about your child’s body‐safety rules, so the person you’re talking with doesn’t feel singled out.
- Parents tell me that it’s easier to initiate the conversation when they can reference a blog post, article, or workshop. For instance, one mom said to a neighbor before a play date, “Matt and I just went to a workshop called Parenting Safe Children, which is about keeping children safe from sexual abuse. We’re starting to have conversations with everyone in our son’s life about his body‐safety rules. Can I share some of the things I learned and get your thoughts as well? (By asking a question, you are getting buy‐in for the conversation, which makes it easier.)
- The conversation is about matching expectations, and in the course of your discussion, here are four points to convey to every caregiver:
- My child is the boss of his/her body.
- We teach our children body‐safety rules.
- We teach our children to respect adults, but it’s okay for them to say “no” and tell if they ever feel unsafe.
- Our children do not keep secrets.
When talking with schools and youth organizations, I encourage parents to discuss three questions. You also have a right to ask for any written policies.
- Beyond background checks, what is the screening process for new hires?
- What kind of child sexual abuse prevention training do you offer staff and volunteers?
- What specific policies are in place to minimize the risk of child sexual abuse? (e.g., buddy system in which a teacher/counselor is never alone with a student/camper).
While it's important to teach children body‐safety rules and teach kids how to say "No" and tell an adult, ultimately it is an adult's responsibility to keep children safe. And the best way for adults to do this is by inviting all caregivers onto the family's prevention team and making body safety as regular a topic as bike helmets and seat belts.