Protecting Children from Sexual Predators
Sexual predators are a uniformly horrifying thought to parents everywhere.
On the off chance, you needed a reminder of that fact you need look no further than our laws. We have created law after law to try to protect our children and registries to track offenders.
We live with a constant fear that they could easily be lurking around every corner, every restroom, in every park, and in every boy scout troop. Who can we trust? How do we know?
If you run a google search on the subject you will find terrifying websites developed by concerned citizens groups chock full of alarming images, scary fonts, and ominous messages. Even the color schemes are jarring…
There are sanity and balance to be found here.
I am a mom of 2 little boys and I work with a wide range of criminals and have seen all but one of the types of child sex offenders I will talk about here.
I do not dismiss the concerns about child sexual predators in the least! I think this is an extremely important topic and that there are safe and sane means of keeping our children safe. I believe we will all come out ahead if we are better informed and are approaching the situation with a level head and much less generalized panic.
Understanding Child Sexual Predators
I will go over steps to keeping kids safe but it always helps to understand what you are trying to protect against. Understanding the threat informs and empowers us to make rational choices.
Pedophile: An individual who has a sexual interest and preference for very young prepubescent children.
This is the type of offender who is watching or creating child pornography. This would be someone who is seeking out early elementary school aged children or younger for sexual gratification.
Hebephile: An individual who has a sexual interest and preference for pubescent/early adolescent children. Age is less relevant than physical development but approximately 10-14.
Examples of this are common in the news including altar boys in the catholic church and coaches of boys athletic teams.
Ephebophile: An individual who has a sexual interest and preference for post-pubescent/ later adolescent teens. Here again, age is less relevant than development. Here the interest is for a more physically mature minor.
In these cases, the examples are often heterosexual and include teachers and high school students and older men trying to entice high school girls into relationships online.
So why explain all of this. Well…it helps us to keep our heads on straight.
Not all pedophiles are out there preying on young children who cannot speak up for themselves. They are not all luring children into vans with puppies and candy.
That is a comforting realization because we as parents are much more able to prepare and protect older more verbal and sophisticated children. I will explain later how our just doing our job will go a long way towards protecting them.
Secondly, this is a comforting realization because if you are like me and have ever visited a Megan’s Law site you have seen the daunting number of red dots. Not all of those dots represent a threat to young children. There is more to say about those offender registry sites, but I will come back to that.
Ok so not all child sexual predators are pedophiles but there is more to understanding the types of offenders out there than just that.
There are child sexual offenders out there who are not pedophiles or hebephiles at all! What?! Then why are they doing these things? Is what you are likely thinking. I promise at the end it will all come together and make sense.
Types of Offenders
1. Intentional (fixated) Offenders: These are the sexual offenders who prefer sexual interaction with minors. They are likely to fall into the categories described above and they often prefer to interact with minors socially as well as sexually. They often do not feel capable and competent to have intimate relationships with other adults. These intentional offenders will create situations in which they can develop and maintain relationships with children
The majority of these offenders assault male children to whom they are unrelated. They are highly likely to view their sexual assaults as being a display of affection. This helps them to feel okay about what they are doing with the victim because they develop a value of the victim. This type of offender is highly likely to repeatedly victimize multiple victims. This is because these sexual interactions with the minors are their primary sexual interest.
2. Opportunistic (regressed) Offender: These are offenders who would prefer to have social and sexual needs met with an adult counterpart. However, due to social deficits, low self-esteem, or life stressors, they have opportunistically sought an alternative sexual outlet with a child. These offenders are not technically pedophiles or hebephiles. These are situational offenders who have seized an available outlet for sexual gratification often because they felt that they could not be rejected by the victim that they would have sufficient control.
In such cases, the victims tend to be few in number and are more often female. It is often very common that the victim is a member of the family. These are generally victims of easy access who are being used as surrogates for the sexual relationship the offender would prefer to be having. This type of offending is associated with a much lower rate of reoffense.
3. Unaware (naive) Offender: These cases are particularly sad because the offending is out of the control of the offender. They do not have control of their impulses and do not really understand that what they are doing is wrong. This may be due to developmental delay, mental retardation, or brain injury.
In these situations, the victims are more often female and pubescent or post-pubescent. It is an impulse control issue on the part of the offender who will touch or grab without thinking or responding to cues that the contact is unwelcome. In these cases, the impairment the offender is experiencing is not reparable so reoffense is likely.
4. The Scariest Of All The Kidnapping Sexual Predator. This is an extraordinarily small fraction of child sexual predators, but due to the sheer horror, these are the examples that haunt us. This is who we spend the most time preparing our children for and why we check the park bathroom.
These predators bridge the gap between opportunistic and intentional predators. They are going to plan to get the access then keep the access for the opportunity. Victims in these cases are determined by the pathology of the predator but are more often female.
These people keep us up at night and why we fear the bathroom. They are quite uncommon really in the serial killer category of frequency. These are not the people that are represented by the red dots on the Megan’s Law site because if these predators are caught they remain incarcerated.
Okay so in a recap so far as parents we need to be most afraid of pedophiles and hebephiles who are intentional offenders or opportunistic offenders around us.
What else is there to learn?
The majority of child sexual predators are male. In cases where women were sexually offending children, it was generally while cooperating with a dominant male counterpart. The victims selected were of the male counterparts preference.
How to Keep Children Safe
Keeping children safe likely seems like a daunting task because of the variety of types of offenders we have discussed here.
So lets break it down by category of offender.
Protecting Children From Opportunistic Predators.
This concern is biggest for people with daughters.
Things to consider:
Males who are part of the family or close enough to the family to be comfortable in the home. Who has access?
Of those who have access think about who has considerable social limitations due to schedule restrictions, poor social skills, limited social network, and low self-esteem
Also, consider those with substance abuse issues
Finally, consider if anyone is making an effort to be there when the child is present and alone such as after school care, babysitting, tutoring, offering rides to and from practice, offering that they help them at work part time.
The upshot: You want to consider which males have access or may be seeking more private access to the child. In combination with having open communication with the child opportunistic threats can be avoided. To read more about preparing your children to prevent sexual abuse click here.
The problem comes in when the parents are disengaged or unavailable to the child. If you are the parent who would take your child’s concerns seriously it is much less likely that this would be a problem in the home. Opportunistic predators thrive in chaotic disconnected families where parents keep erratic schedules, domestic violence is present, substance abuse, fluctuation of who is living in the home, etc. Poor communication and instability allow for ample opportunity.
Protecting Children From Unaware Predators.
This boils down to supervision in public places. This is why I check bathrooms and keep my eyes peeled in the park.
The best thing here is that these are not sophisticated predators. They are not lurking so much as they just happen to be there. They are generally pretty apparent and easily avoided. The deficits are notable allowing for observation and quick intervention to prevent an incident.
The Upshot: Keep your eyes peeled for people who are showing interest in your child who appear to be emotionally or mentally off. This becomes a bigger concern when children are older, specifically pubescent and post-pubescent girls. By this age, they too can be well informed about how to avoid situations and protect themselves. For more on how to talk to your kids about sexual predators click here.
How To Protect Your Child From The Kidnapping Type of Child Sexual Predator
This type of predator is why we teach children not to talk to strangers. Again this is a teeny tiny fraction of child sexual predators. The vast majority of minors who are sexually abused are assaulted by someone that they know who has access to them.
That is not to say it is not a real concern. I say that solely to give perspective to the relative risk. To read more about how to prepare your child for such an event read this article about stranger safety. Click here.
How To Protect Children From Intentional Child Sexual Predators
These are the biggest area of concern. These predators can rack up great numbers of victims and employ an effective deliberate strategy to do so.
Educating your child about sexual abuse and maintaining an open loving path of communication is crucial. That education and communication are like a silver bullet in the heart of intentional sexual predators.
Remember intentional sexual predators are planning to sexually abuse children so they are carefully considering their choice of victim. Research has clearly demonstrated that they tend to select children who are shy, quiet, with low self-esteem, and a tumultuous home life. They are looking for kids who are isolated and emotionally vulnerable. By caring and being involved in the child’s life you can make the child far less likely to be a preferred victim.
Intentional offenders often seek out roles that give them ongoing access to their preferred age and gender of the victim. Again in this type of offender the victims are more often male. So this is where we find the catholic church scandal, boy scout leaders, sports coaches, foster parenting, and the guidance counselor at my elementary school as a kid.
Anyway, the reason they seek these positions is to gain access to interacting and getting to know a variety of kids. From these children, they select those they feel will make good potential victims.
Once they have identified who they begin a process often referred to as grooming. Remember that this type of offender often convinces themselves that the abuse is affection so they start a process not unlike wooing someone you want to date. They pay special attention to the child, demonstrate how much they care and provide gifts. They have chosen a child that is in need of that attention and interaction so it can be effective. Once they have established themselves as a key person in the child’s support network they slowly begin testing the boundaries and add threats of not being there for them, taking something they feel that they need, or harming their family.
While it may sound absurd that this would be effective it is because of the emotional vulnerability of the selected victims.
So the way to protect children from these types of predators is to watch for males taking an unusual interest in the child. Especially if that person is seeking time alone with the child. In this day of greater consciousness of this phenomenon leaders of boy scout troops and male teachers are generally advised to adhere to protocols that prevent them from being alone with a child. If there is someone in the child’s life who finds themselves alone with the child on more than a rare occasion it is worth asking the child about the relationship. We do not need to fear everyone who wants to work with children. Most people have the purest of intentions. What we have to watch for are the few who seem to be trying to pick a few children out of the crowd and get them alone. Its really not unlike picking a bison out of the fringe of the herd. It is a similar hunting mentality. And again all roads come back to communication.
If you have good communication and a supportive relationship then beyond watching for obviously strange people and teaching them how to react to strangers approaching them you have done your job.
You can check the Megan’s law site but it is more impactful to feel secure in your bond with your child and the communications you can have. The Megan’s Law site can’t tell you about the scary people who kidnap kids. It also includes a lot of people who pose no threat to children at all. A great variety of crimes can result in sex offender registration. There are people who have ended up on that registry for life for repeatedly urinating in parks while homeless or for the statutory rape of their 16-year-old girlfriend when they were 23. These are indeed bad acts that reflect poor judgment…but these are not people who are stalking children. The daunting number of registered offenders on these sites can leave parents paranoid.
As I mentioned I have spent the last decade working with felons including murderers, rapists, etc. I have also worked extensively with children in foster care coming from abusive homes and women and children in hiding as they flee domestic violence. I have seen the darkest side of humanity. I have 2 small children that mean the world to me. You would think that if anyone would be afraid for their children’s safety it would be me. I am extremely cautious with my children and their safety, but this can be achieved without being paranoid if we utilize
1. Communication with our children
2. Being cognizant of your child’s relationships
3. Observation of people shares your surroundings
One note of great caution I would like to add is that by turmoil in the home I do not mean divorce. While divorce can be part of a chaotic unsupportive home life divorce itself does not equate to the instability of which I speak. Many articles refer to divorce as a risk for this type of assault. Yes, Divorce can strain family stability but divorce does not universally leave children feeling unsupported and totally vulnerable. I don’t want anyone to read this and think that if they have separated, divorced, or become estranged from the other parent in any way that their child is beyond protection. The message instead should be that in all situations especially when the parents separate communication and emotional support are key. For more on how to talk to your kids to prevent sexual abuse click here.
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