Dr. Gina Madrigrano guides you into the world of child sex offenders to better understand who they are, how they select their victims and how to protect your kids.
In many parents’ darkest nightmares lurks the predator hunting for opportunities to sexually abuse children. Sadly, for many children, these nightmares are all too real. Evidence suggests that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused by family, including step-parents, every year (1). Strangers or acquaintances victimize boys four times more often than girls (2). Parents, thankfully, can take steps to protect their children from sexual abuse. You can reduce the odds that your child will fall prey to these predators by knowing who they are and how they target children.
Who are they?
- Adults. Sex offenders come from all walks of life. While the sexual predator is often imagined as a stranger lurking in the shadows, more than 80% of child molesters are men known to their victims. Adult male family members are responsible for half of all incidents of child sexual abuse. And the younger the victim, the higher the likelihood that the aggressor is a family member or someone close to the family.
While some predators are females, they are greatly outnumbered by males. Most women offenders carry out their crimes with a male accomplice (e.g., husband or partner) (3). Often, these women are themselves victims of domestic abuse.
Whereas some child molesters do fit the profile of the stranger who abducts and molests children, many do not look threatening. They can be charming with adults and skilled with children.
- Teenagers. Male juvenile offenders are more prevalent than females, and they are often known to the victim (e.g. babysitters, siblings, cousins, schoolmates, friend’s siblings). Most adolescent sex offenders are themselves victims of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse (4). Often they come from homes with a high incidence of substance abuse. Most juvenile offenders come from single-parent homes or have been separated from their parents (5). Their offenses tend to be more intrusive than those of adult sex offenders because they are often impulsive and not as clever at covering their tracks. Research estimates that between one-quarter and one-third of all sexual offenses are committed by juveniles (6).
- Children. Children may engage in inappropriate sexual behaviours but they are not sexually motivated in the way that adults and teens are. There are three primary causes for these inappropriate behaviours: sexual abuse; witnessing sexual behaviours or assaults; exposure to pornography.
How they operate:
Because they are often known to their victims, sex offenders tend to be inconspicuous. Some offenders choose jobs that put them in contact with children. They may choose positions of authority or supervision: school bus driver, clergy member, teacher, coach, boy scout leader, babysitter, nanny, or home daycare worker. Pedophiles are often very patient and calculating. They will work hard to gain trust and can groom families for years before making a move.
Family members not living in the child’s home have used trips, sleepovers, and babysitting as opportunities for sexual assault. Child molesters in extended families have tended to be overly involved in the child’s life.
Strangers, by contrast, tend to scope out neglected children or those frequently alone outdoors. Sex offenders have lured children with animals or “lost” pets, candy, electronic devices, and money, or simply by asking for directions (7). Other child molesters seek out victims on the Internet via video games and chats, portraying themselves as children.
Some child molesters target single mothers to gain access to their children. They prefer needy, trusting, co-dependent women who allow their love interest to meet her kids early in the relationship, who extend invitations for sleepovers, or even seem willing to cohabitate early on. These men will first groom the mom to earn her trust, often by being generous, helpful, and kind to her and her children. Once trust is won, he will also groom the children by caring for them, buying them gifts, or lavishing attention upon them.
As noted above, teenage sex offenders are more impulsive than adult pedophiles. They have taken advantage of situations where they are alone with other children (e.g. babysitting, coaching, during sleepovers, in parks or school).
Finally, when young children exhibit sexual behaviours with other kids, it usually happens during playdates, sleepovers, at daycare, on the playground, or at school.
Who do they seek out: Victim Profile
Male victims outnumber females with regards to offenses committed outside the home. Offenders prefer children who are less likely to offer resistance or speak out. They seek out children who are vulnerable, insecure, needy, poorly attached, have poor self-esteem, and come from broken families. Children going to and returning home alone from school are more vulnerable to stranger abductions (7). Victims often have absent or abusive fathers and thus long for a father figure. Children with narcissistic dads tend to be more vulnerable. Once a child has been victimized in the home, they are often targeted for repeat offenses.
How to protect your children
Here are several strategies to protect your children from sexual offenders.
- Be involved in your child’s life. Foster a close and trusting relationship, with non-judgmental open communication. Teach them to not keep secrets.
- Parents play a crucial role in their children’s healthy development. Fulfill all their needs so that they don’t seek parental figures elsewhere.
- Raise confident children and encourage assertiveness. Teach them to stand up for themselves and how to create boundaries. Avoiding toxic relationships is also key.
- Teach them skills to actively resist attempts to grab or lure them. Explain how to make safe decisions and recognize potentially dangerous situations by regularly rehearsing different scenarios. (Good strategies can be found here 8)
- Make a list of trustworthy adults.
- Keep your child close in busy public places.
- Not everyone in authority can be trusted. Tell them they won’t be punished for “telling on” an adult.
- Age-appropriate safety and sex education are critical. Don’t forget to mention that inappropriate touching includes their faces or mouths, and nothing should be inserted in there.
- If they are unaccompanied by an adult, make sure they have a buddy with them.
- Before allowing your children to go on sleepovers get to know the families well. Ask a lot of questions. Sexual aggressors don’t like this.
- Don’t use a fear-based approach to teach safety. It doesn’t work.
- Because most perps are known to the child, don’t focus solely on “stranger danger.” Instead, teach your children not to go anywhere with anyone without parental permission.
- Carefully choose all caregivers. Get a criminal record check for nannies and home daycares. Get to know teenage babysitters well. Avoid teens with the characteristics mentioned above.
- Watch out for online aggressors. Monitor your children’s media use at all times. Educate them about internet safety.
- For divorced parents, try to have a decent relationship with your ex-partner so that you can inform her or him of the risks. Minimize conflict in front of your kids.
- Always trust your gut. If a person doesn’t feel right, don’t take a chance. Teach your children to trust their instincts.
Ultimately, protecting our children from sexual predators is a shared responsibility since we can’t be our child’s side at all times. Most importantly, do not underestimate the protective power of your relationship with your child.
- Child Sexual Abuse Statistics The National Centre for Victims of Crime. https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics
- Ministère de la Sécurité Publique du Québec (2011). Statisques 2009 sur les agressions sexuelles au Québec. 23 pages. https://www.securitepublique.gouv.qc.ca
- A Profile of Women Who Sexually Offend. In: https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/005/008/092/005008-0274-eng.pdf
- J. Fagan and S. Wexler, “Explanations of sexual assault among violent delinquents,” Journal of Adolescent Research, 3 (1988): 363–385.
- R. B. Graves, D. K. Openshaw, F. R. Ascione and S. L. Erickson, “Demographic and parental characteristics of youthful sex offenders,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 40 (1996): 300–317.
- Adolescent Sexual Offenders. (1990). The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. In:https://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/H72-22-3-1990E.pdf
- Stranger Abduction. In: https://missingkids.ca/app/en/non_family_abduction-prevention
- Stranger Abduction: Prevention Strategies for Kids. https://missingkids.ca/app/en/non_family_abduction-prevention-safety_tips
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