When I was pregnant with my second child, and my first was just over a year old, a level three sex offender moved in on my street. I could see the white picket fence in front of his house from my front steps. This man, who now drove by my house on a regular basis, had been imprisoned for over a decade because he had sexually exploited many young children while they were in his care. I had encountered the reality of child sexual abuse many times in my professional work as a child psychologist. Now I was regularly encountering this particular pedophile, on my street, right in the middle of my mom-time. Seeing a known pedophile walk or drive past your home, as your kids are running about, is enough to draw forth some powerful protective emotions.
A friend suggested to me that I do something about how upset I felt, so, the PhD in me turned to research. I started studying everything I could find in the literature about the prevention of child sexual abuse. Fortunately, I learned that experts had amassed quite a bit of information that led to clear recommendations for abuse prevention. I also started talking (hopefully not too often) to other parents about sexual abuse prevention, in order to find out what other parents are doing. In the same way you might ask “how do you get more veggies into the daily diet?” or “which music programs are good for the little ones?”, I asked about abuse prevention.
What I found out is that there is A LOT of information, driven by research and the experience of experts, and that this information does not match what parents think they should be doing! Parents talk about “Stranger Danger”. The research says, strangers are not the problem, and “don’t talk to strangers” is confusing, impractical, and a distraction from the real problem. Parents have heard about “Say No! to Bad Touch”. But “bad touch” is so vague, and confusing, and it misses the fact that the manipulation (con, grooming) will often be much more sophisticated. Those who know how pedophiles work, and how sociopaths are driven, know that children cannot stop a pedophile by saying No. That responsibility lies with the adults.
So, I started to put together, based on research, information about what really works. I was invited, through my profession, to speak at a Montesorri School about sexual abuse prevention. Then my friends asked me to tell them what I had learned. First in my living room, and later in libraries, at preschools, and in churches, I began to share the information I had pulled together. Every time I gave “my talk”, I was asked by attendees to give “my talk” to another group.
The pedophile on my street was re-incarcerated last year. Now, when I walk or drive by his house, I feel a mix of new feelings. I feel a sense of real relief that he is gone. The police detective told me that he will be gone for at least a decade. I also know that my fear of this kind-looking man was important and reasonable. He had in fact attempted to re-offend, and with a child in our community. Most of all, I feel a continued sense of responsibility to work for prevention, informing parents and childcare givers of the real things they can do to protect the children in their communities.
If we can get past our own anxiety, awkwardness, embarrassment, and wish to avoid the topic altogether, we can actually protect children from those who would exploit them sexually.