Written by Corinne Garcia Monday, April 19 2010
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, and an issue that gets a lot of media coverage: children and sexual predators. Gone are the lazy summer days – kids taking off after breakfast, cruising around the neighborhood, and returning for dinner with a sunburn and a tired smile. Today, parents seem to hold their children on a tighter leash than ever.
Karel Amaranth, executive director of the Butler Child Advocacy Center at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, N.Y., sees the change as a shift in awareness rather than a shift in society. “It’s a raised awareness of the dangers to children,” she says. “Not just child sexual abuse issues, general safety issues have become more necessary and more noticed.”
If we are going to let our children off leash, it’s clear that we must arm them with tools to defend themselves in worst-case scenarios. However, according to statistics, instead of worrying about the stranger offering candy, we may want to look closer to home.
Who are the Sexual Predators?
Allison Turkel, senior policy advisor of the Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) office within the Department of Justice thinks the term “sexual predator” has been blown out of proportion, mostly by the media hype that surrounds high profile cases. “There is a lot made of stranger danger,” she says. “It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, but the vast majority of sex offender crimes occur in the home.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, assault by strangers accounts for just 3 percent of molestations in children younger than 6, and 5 percent in children ages 6 to 11. That leaves 95 percent of reported sexual assaults in the hands of those we know – what Turkel refers to as “interfamilial” predators.
“By and large it is not a stranger jumping out from behind a bush, it’s people who have contact with children on a regular basis,” Amaranth says. “The style that sex perpetrators of children use is to gain their trust, and over time develop this trust relationship with kids so they have access to them and are able to sexually abuse them in a variety of ways.”
The sexual predator scare has evolved even further with the internet. It’s now easier than ever to anonymously prey on eager, young kids. Even in interfamilial cases, Turkel says, predators use the internet to communicate with their victims. And of course strangers use it as well.
“Teenagers are so integrated in social networking, that most of the time they don’t think that person’s a stranger. It’s a friend to them,” Turkel says. And while predators may have felt isolated pre-internet, she says that they now have a way to connect to like-minded people, convincing each other that their behavior is acceptable. But according to both Turkel and Amaranth, internet predators still don’t compare to the dangers that lurk closer to home.
Tools for Kids
We can’t always be with our kids, but what parents can do is empower them with open communication and education. Not only does this prevent occurrences, but it also allows children the freedom to talk about it.
Prevention Techniques and Guidelines:
- Talk to kids about these issues on a regular basis at every age, suggests Amaranth. Open communication lets kids know it’s an OK thing to talk about and teaches them about prevention.
- Be aware of behavioral changes in kids. Oftentimes there are no physical indicators that a child has been sexually abused, Amaranth says. Examples of behavioral changes include an outgoing child who becomes withdrawn or a child who displays overly sexualized behavior.
- Empower kids to scream and resist if they are in an uncomfortable situation. “Because children are taught to obey adults, we have to teach them discernment,” Turkel says.
- Teach kids to be careful where they go, who they get in a car with, whose puppy they look at, etc.
- Conduct body safety/personal safety talks, through both parents and the community, explaining how and where no one is supposed to touch you. This opens up a forum for discussion. “A lot of disclosures happen during the safety talks at school,” Turkel says.
- Be extremely observant. “Parents need to make good decisions about with whom and where they send their kids,” Turkel says.
Amaranth suggests that parents relay these messages to kids on an ongoing basis:
- You are a very important person.
- Your body belongs to you.
- There are parts of your body that are private (usually described as the parts covered by a bathing suit).
- You have the right say no if anyone wants to touch you in a place that makes you feel uncomfortable, afraid, or mixed up.
- Trust your feelings.
- If someone touches you or hurts you, it’s not your fault.
- If someone bothers you, touches you, or hurts you, tell a grown up you trust.
What it all comes down to is education, empowerment, and communication, according to Turkel. “Communication is essential for so many wellness issues,” she says. “If we were more open with things across the board, our kids would be better off.”
And a little listening goes a long way, Amaranth says. “Listen to your kids, be very quiet and listen. They have a lot to say. Not just to prevent sexual abuse, but they may have other issues that have gone undisclosed.”
Prevention resources: http://www.nsopw.gov/Core/Resources.aspx
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy, and Fit Parent.