Oak Bluffs police offer parents tips for safeguarding their children from sex offenders
The words "sexual predator" conjure up images of a sinister figure trying to lure children into a car or alleyway. But as Oak Bluffs police officer Carrie White will tell you, more than likely a sexual predator is someone a child knows, perhaps a relative or a parent's friend, or a seemingly harmless acquaintance made in an Internet chat room.
In a frank and fact-filled presentation Tuesday night at Oak Bluffs School, Officer White shared her knowledge about sex crimes on the Island, sex offenders, and the dangers they pose on the Internet with about 20 parents anxious to learn how to protect their children.
"Every child is at risk," Officer White told them, but not from the "stranger danger" that parents routinely warn their children about. "Abduction is so rare. The uncle, the neighbor - 90 percent of cases I see are victims of people they know and trust."
Officer Carrie White, Oak Bluffs Police Department. Photo by Janet Hefler
One statistic she quoted made some parents audibly gasp: "One in three girls and one in five boys are victims of sexual offenders before the age of 16." And unfortunately, she said, nine out of ten child victims never tell anyone what happened.
Sexual offenders are classified by the State in four categories (see related story). Level 2 offenders are considered moderate risk and Level 3 high risk for committing another offense. Information about the numbers of Level 2 offenders and detailed descriptions of Level 3 offenders is available on the Massachusetts government web site, listed by town. The registry currently lists 15 Level 2 offenders and two Level 3 offenders on the Island.
In Massachusetts alone, there are 9,000 registered sex offenders, with an additional 5,000 in violation. Although there are 400,000 registered sexual offenders in the United States, there are hundreds of thousands more not convicted, Officer White said. While the registry provides some degree of comfort in making sex offenders' whereabouts known, "You need to be worried about the people who aren't caught yet," she warned.
Considering the dangers pedophiles pose to children, Officer White offered parents detailed information about who they are and how they operate. Although sexually attracted to children, pedophiles usually have relationships with adults to hide their behavior, she said.
Although some people mistakenly associate pedophilia with homosexuality, statistics prove that most pedophiles are heterosexual men, of all races, professions, and socioeconomic classes. Officer White pointed out that about 20 percent of pedophiles are women.
Most pedophiles molest 100 or more victims before getting caught, and on average, molest 244 children over their lifetimes. Pedophiles often seek jobs where they can spend time alone with children. For example, Officer White said, one sex offender volunteered last summer to work at an Island summer day camp.
Building a child's trust and rapport, called "grooming," may consist of extra attention and gifts. "In almost every case I have had, pedophilia has involved pornography," Officer White said, which is used to test a child's reactions and desensitize them.
Since pedophiles often swear a child to secrecy by threatening to harm their parents, Officer White recommended teaching children that, "There is no such thing as a secret you should never tell your parents - that should be a red flag for them." She advises children to trust their "gut feelings" and tell their parents if someone's touch, no matter where on their body, makes them uneasy.
Of children who are molested, 72 percent will deny it. Gail Gordon, a psychologist who also took part in Officer White's presentation, said changes in behavior such as silence, loss of appetite, and withdrawal from activities they enjoy, are clues that children may have been molested. Keep asking them what is wrong and talking to them, Officer White said. Their admission of what happened "is a process, not an event," she said.
One way parents can safeguard their children is by knowing who will be around them, especially when they are not at home. It is not enough to call a friend's parents to check about a sleepover, Officer White cautioned. "Ask who else will be at someone's house. When your child comes home, ask who came over." In one of her cases, a young girl was raped by a friend of her girlfriend's father while she was at a sleepover.
For some sexual predators, modern technology widens their field of victims. "The Internet gives sexual predators unlimited access to kids," Officer White said. "Plus, it's private and mostly anonymous." Pedophiles routinely visit Internet web sites where children and teens post information about themselves, she said. "I tell kids it is like standing in the middle of Hyannis Mall, handing out descriptive flyers about yourself to strangers."
Once contact is established in a chat room, pedophiles try to get photos from their intended victims, Officer White said. But even a seemingly harmless request for a photo can lead to trouble.
In one case Officer White recalled, a pedophile offered a 12-year-old girl $1,000 for her picture in a bathing suit. Enticed by the money, she rationalized a photo would be no different than if someone saw her on the beach. However, after he got her photo, he altered it into a pornographic image and posted it on a pedophile web site.
To safeguard Internet usage, Officer White suggested placing the computer in a busy area where its use can be observed, monitoring the sites children visit, and encouraging them to phone their friends instead of using instant messaging. Beware of chat rooms, she warned, which may feature colorful pop-ups designed to entice children to open links to pornographic sites.
In talking about Island trouble spots, Officer White mentioned Circuit Avenue as a place where sex offenders might look for victims. She shared parents' concerns about a new game room coming to town, since police occasionally observed known pedophiles hanging around the old game room.
However, she added, "If a sex offender is standing in the game room, there's not much we can do about it. It's less scary to have your kid in the game room than to have them go to a sleepover where you don't know who is there."
After the program, Rhonda Albert, an Oak Bluffs mother of two, said she was glad she attended, because it reassured her about what she is teaching her children and because learned a great deal of new information.
The school's parent-teacher organization (PTO) invited Officer White to make an encore presentation after she spoke at their meeting last month. "The people who were there felt it was a message to get out to as many people as possible," said Mary Ellen Guyther, PTO president.
Officer White said she would be happy to speak at other Island schools, and hopes that educators will implement a sexual abuse awareness program starting as early as kindergarten. Over the next several months, she plans to start an organization called CASA (Community Against Sexual Abuse) to raise money for sexual abuse awareness programs on the Island.