Aug 02

Protecting Missouri’s Children At Home, At School and Online

By Mike Ferguson

(St. Charles, MO) – Back to school time means hectic schedules, anxiety over new classes and reconnecting with old friends.

It can also mean new threats from family friends, neighbors or complete strangers who want to abuse them. While we often think of a child abuser as the creepy-looking guy in the trench coat on shows like “Law and Order” or “Criminal Minds”, it could be the person who babysits them now.

MWSnap096Ellen Teller is the Executive Director of The Child Center and says predators usually work to win the trust of their victims and the victim’s family.

“Sexual abuse does not really happen with strangers. Ninety-five percent of the time, or more, the perpetrator, the offender in a sexual abuse case is someone that is known by the child and known very well.”

Teller says one in six boys and one in four girls in the United States becomes a victim of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen.

While parents generally cannot stop predators from trying to lure children into being abused, they can help prevent the abuse through the parental relationship. Teller says having open communication and trust with your child stronger than what anyone can establish is the key to preventing sexual abuse.

That means your child must know it’s safe to talk to you when they feel uncomfortable around someone, even a relative or family friend.

“I wish we could teach children that an offender has a certain look, but they don’t. They look very much like you and I and in order to be successful at what they do, they can’t be scary to the children.”

She adds that protecting kids also means listening to your inner voice when a person makes you uncomfortable. To Teller that “gut instinct” is worth following when it comes anyone who wants to be close to your children.

Teller recommends calling law enforcement when you suspect a problem. That’s not only to get the investigation and prosecution started but to access specialists who know how to work with traumatized children. Groups like hers also offer counseling for children who have been victimized.

That concept of earning trust with a young victim isn’t unique to those who live in the neighborhood. FBI Agent Martin Culbreth says predators take that approach with technology.

MWSnap097While they stay out of the line of sight physically, sexual predators are often keeping up with modern technology while parents often don’t. Too often, that allows long-term conversations to develop between children and the predator that go undetected.

When that happens, the predator can establish you child’s trust in him and shake their trust in you.

“[Sexual predators] are looking for the exact same things they would look for in a physical world. They’re looking for the child that’s a loner or a child that’s reaching out somewhere else, and they are going to prey on that vulnerability that’s out there.”

That is not done overnight. It’s done over time with conversations that begin innocently and gradually become sexually leading or explicit. Culbreth says the predator moves the child to the next level of a sexual relationship once he establishes a new level of trust with them. For example, what could be a request for a picture of the child while fully clothed could lead to a request for a picture in a swim suit.

From there, it’s not as much of a stretch to ask for a topless or nude photo without scaring the young victim, at least not as much if that relationship has been developed.

While the same advice on building a strong relationship with your child applies in these cases, Culbreth says parents need to do their own homework. In other words, learn the technology that your children use on their phone, in their room and at school.

“Everything you can do at your desktop can be done in a mobile environment.”

That’s why the FBI has launched an online guide for children about cyber threats. It’s called “Safe Online Surfing” and is designed for kids between the third and eighth grades. Agent Culbreth says the game is also suitable for use by school teachers and others who lead groups of young people.

While some experts point out that most sexual abuse is committed by those close to the child and his or her family, the problem of strangers using technology to lure children into abuse is still a threat to all young people.

“If the FBI, right now, were to turn all of our agent resources – 14,000 agents – towards online predators and sex offenders, we literally could make arrests 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Agent Culbreth says new technology creates more opportunities for predators and his advice is to make sure, just like in your physical neighborhood, you are always near your child. That probably means learning to navigate the digital world along with both your child and the bad guys.

“Don’t be afraid of technology. Embrace it because your child has embraced it.”

On the web:

The Child Center – http://www.thechildcenter.com/

FBI’s “Safe Online Surfing” Guide and Game: https://sos.fbi.gov/

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