Child sexual predators are not monsters.
That’s the message Smyth County Child Protective Services Investigator Angela Bise sent Thursday night at a sexual abuse awareness training session held at Marion Senior High School.
“Monsters don’t get our kids,” she told the crowd. “Nice men get our kids.”
She wants parents to understand that the “monsters” who jump out from behind a bush and grab a child aren’t the norm.
“The offender will be someone close — a relative, a family friend, one of the many professionals or volunteers our children come in contact with everyday.”
It’s important, she said, for parents to know the warning signs, not just from children who have been abused, but from the abusers themselves.
Child sexual predators not only methodically “groom” their victims, but their caregivers, as well.
Bise and Bristol Children’s Advocacy Center Director Kathi Roark said grooming begins when a perpetrator identifies the child’s vulnerabilities. They may give the child special attention, lend a sympathetic ear and eventually become a friend to the child, making them believe they are the only person who really understands them.
Once trust is built into the relationship, Roark said an element of secrecy often begins.
“It might start out as something simple, ‘I know your mom doesn’t like you to have a lot of treats, but we’re going to go to Dairy Queen before we go home. Don’t tell her.’ It can start as something as simple as that, but then it’s that whole pattern of secrecy.”
Physical touching is usually initiated in a nonsexual way — a rub on the back or a pat on the leg, Bise said. The casual touching is often done in the presence of a caregiver to both convince the child it’s OK for them to be touched and to set up doubt in a caregivers mind should the child ever come forward.
Bise pointed out that fear of misreading a situation or wrongly accusing a person sometimes deters people from reporting the abuse.
“If you suspect someone is being abused, report it,” she said. “We don’t automatically say, ‘Oh, that’s exactly what’s happening.’ It just gives us something to go on.”
When a child comes forward, Bise said the caregiver should always take them seriously. “Children lie to get out of trouble, not to get into trouble,” she said.
Bise pointed out that only about 5 percent of sexual abusers are reported and prosecuted. Since March of this year, CPS investigators in Smyth County have investigated eight cases of child sexual abuse.
“So take those eight cases and add 95 percent. That’s probably how many that’s happened since March.”
She said children often don’t tell because they’re afraid no one will believe them, that they’ll be placed in foster care, that someone they love will go to jail or that their family will hate them for it. Sometimes, she said, the child even feels responsible for the abuse. That’s part of the grooming, she explained.
“As much as adults don’t want to talk about it or hear about it, children don’t want to tell about it either. So it takes a very courageous child to step up and say hey, this isn’t OK.”
After abuse has been reported, the Children’s Advocacy Center provides a more relaxed place for children to be interviewed. Children, their families and investigators currently have to travel to Bristol to use the facility, but Roark said she was happy to announce that a Marion facility would be opening on Terrace Drive in as little as three weeks.
The more comfortable environment allows children to be more at ease, and by extension more informative, Roark said.
“In kids’ minds, ‘if I have to go to the police station, I’m in trouble,’ or ‘if somebody comes and interviews me at school, everybody’s going to know.’”
The center’s staff works with children and investigators during the case and offers counseling for abuse victims, their siblings and caregivers at no charge.
Bise, Roark, the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police held Thursday’s training in hopes of preventing as many abuse cases as possible.
Bise pointed out that research indicates that offender rehabilitation isn’t effective.
“So what do we do?” she asked “We can’t change them. We’re going to have to change us. We’re going to have to change our community and how we watch out for our kids. We’re going to have to circle the wagons around our community and our kids and make sure an offender can’t get to them. If they cannot get to them, they will move on. Will they stop offending? No. But they will go somewhere else.”
Bise and Roark offered advice to caregivers, schools, churches and other organizations.
To parents, Roark said, “If there is another adult that’s paying more attention to your child than you are, this is something to be concerned about.”
Other red flags can include excessive or expensive gifts from an adult, unfamiliar apps on a child’s cell phone, one-on-one texting between a child and a coach, teacher or other adult responsible for the child’s wellbeing.
Roark said all organizations are advised to copy a child’s parent, principal or other organization leader on any texts or emails sent to individual children or to a group of children.
Bise advised caregivers to talk to their children about sexual abuse.
“No one wants to tell their children about sexual abuse, but on the other hand, would you rather them learn it from a child molester?”
She recommended parents teach their children appropriate or recognizable names for body parts. She said if a child uses “cutsie” names when they do come forward, the adult may not understand what they are trying to tell them.
Should parents catch their children exhibiting sexual behaviors, Bise advised parents to not show negativity.
“Try to find out where they learned to do that, why they’re doing that, who was involved, how it was initiated.”
She also recommended parents not force their children to give goodbye hugs or kisses, as it can enforce the idea that unwanted touching is OK.
For churches, childcare facilities and other organizations, Bise and Roark recommend that two unrelated adults always be present whenever children are around. They also encourage those organizations to make use of background checks whenever possible.
Above all, Bise encouraged parents and caregivers to not “bury their heads in the sand.”
If a child comes forward or if someone suspects abuse, it should always be reported, she said.
More information on how to recognize, prevent or report child sexual abuse can be found on the Virginia Department of Social Services website at www.dss.virginia.gov.