By Tim Hardiman
The Law & Order: SVU episode Educated Guess illustrated the fact that most sexual assault victims, especially child sexual assault victims, are abused by someone they know – not a stranger. More than 90 percent of child sexual assault victims are assaulted by a family member, as in Educated Guess, or another trusted adult. The allegations against former Penn State Coach Jerry Sandusky reinforce this point.
SVU demonstrated this in an eerily prescient episode; Personal Fouls. Dan Lauria guest starred as a pedophile basketball coach. The similarities to the allegations against Sandusky were striking – right down to the coach using a foundation for troubled youth to access his victims. As the Sandusky Grand Jury Presentment states: “. . . the subject of this investigations founded The Second Mile, a charity initially devoted to helping troubled young boys. It was within The Second Mile program that Sandusky found his victims.” (p. 1) In Personal Fouls Lauria played a coach who ran a foundation called “Ed’s Kids”. In the episode he used the foundation to groom kids by giving them things they couldn’t get without him. Lauria was exceptionally well cast in this episode because many people still associate him with the character Jack Arnold, the father on TV show The Wonder Years. When thinking of a child molester parents should not be looking for the drooling pervert in a trench coat hiding in an alley but should be looking at the “normal” “nice” “man next door” who has access to their children through legitimate means – someone like Jack Arnold.
Many people parents know only slightly have access to their children. From school workers to sports coaches to parents of other children, youngsters come in contact with many adults each day. Parents may see these people often and become comfortable with them simply because of the frequency of their interaction. Seeing and even talking to another parent at a child’s athletic event or extracurricular activity does not reveal anything of that person’s character or mental condition. Retired FBI Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole states in the introduction to her book Dangerous Instincts “. . . our instincts often lead us to trust people based on superficial details – details that generally have little to do with true normalcy. . . . In reality some of the most dangerous people fit right in. They can be outgoing, charming and exceptionally good at making eye contact and putting us at ease.” (p. xx) In both of these SVU episodes, as in real life, the perpetrators appeared normal and were adept at identifying vulnerable children.
Pederasts don’t select victims randomly. They choose children to whom they have access and who are vulnerable. The vulnerability can be due to psychological, social or family issues; children who are desperate for a friend, longing for some sense of fitting in. Once the predator has identified a vulnerable child and that child’s need they will fill that need until the child is so invested in him that the victim will withstand the abuse so that they don’t jeopardize the relationship. The abuse will continue until the child matures beyond the pedophile’s preferred age range, the child puts a stop to it or the abuse is discovered by another adult. If the child ages out of the perpetrator’s preferred age the perpetrator will go back to his potential pool of victims for a new candidate. He will start the grooming process early so that he is always able to fulfill his compulsion. Even after a child matures to the point that he or she realizes the abuse is wrong they may not come forward to accuse the abuser due fear, embarrassment, shame or programming by the abuser that no one will believe them. The shame for a teenage boy – particularly an athlete – in publicly accusing a revered adult was poignantly illustrated in Personal Fouls when it was revealed that one of Coach Ed’s early victims had committed suicide. There are steps parents can take to help prevent their children from being victimized.
The first step is for a parent to conduct an honest appraisal of the child’s social skills. If a child falls into one of the categories listed above – socially awkward, seeking acceptance, psychological or medical problems or lacks a male role model, if there is an evident need to fit in, the parent should try to fill those needs in a healthy way. This can include counseling, encouraging the student to take part in social activities or encouraging supervised play dates. A school psychologist or social worker can suggest safe activities. Parents should talk with their children – especially about uncomfortable topics like sexual abuse. The saturation of the media with stories of the Penn State scandal has made the story impossible to avoid. Parents should use this as an opportunity to broach this embarrassing topic. In an age appropriate manner explain to the child that this person may have done things wrong to children. Explain that an adult “horsing around in the shower” (Hawks, 2011) with a child is wrong and discuss other hypothetical “good” and “bad” activities. Parents should assure their children that they will be believed, that the parent will stand up for them. In Educated Guess Gina had outcried to her mother about her abuse when it first started. But because Uncle Ted seemed normal and provided for the family her mother didn’t believe her. All allegations of child abuse should be taken seriously and investigated by professionals – law enforcement and appropriate child protective agencies. The head coach of a college football program is not a professional investigator. An investigation conducted by professionals will substantiate or refute allegations based on facts – not feelings or intuition, not based on the standing in the community of the alleged victim or alleged abuser. Comprehensive reporting can avoid tragedies like those depicted on television and those playing out on the news. Parents should take an interest in their child’s activities and friends. This reassures the child and can send a signal to any predator searching for prey.
In addition to sizing up the child predators evaluate the adults in the child’s life and conduct a risk – reward analysis. Uncle Ted in Educated Guess was confident that neither his wife nor his sister in-law would believe Gina. In Personal Fouls parents blindly trusted their children with Coach Ed. In the Sandusky case parents trusted the Penn State coach enough to let their children sleep at his house. Abusers will avoid children whose parents are questioning, involved. Be it a coach or a parent of a classmate who has eye on their child’s friend a pedophile will hesitate if they meet an inquisitive, engaged parent. Parents should not abandon their children at play dates without meeting the other child’s parents. They should have a conversation with them look around the area the kids will be playing, see who else will be there. Being engaged will reassure good parents that their child’s friend comes from a strong loving family and may help to dissuade a predator from seeking that child out due to the increased risk of being caught. There are also some concrete research steps a parent can take.
The internet is a powerful tool and pedophiles have used it to advance their evil plans. But, it can also be a tool parents can use to help protect their children. All states have passed Sex Offender Registration acts – commonly referred to as Megan’s Law to notify residents when a convicted sex offender lives in or moves into an area. These notifications are now available online. National Sex Offender Public Website Parents should check the areas around their homes and schools, also check the area where their children are going on a play date or sleep over. If a child is going to a friend’s house parents should search the registry by name to make sure that no one in the friend’s household is in the registry. If a new friend has recently moved into the area from another state be sure to check that state’s registry. Many states have a service to sign up for email notifications when an offender moves into an area – often by zip code. Parents should sign up for this service but also check the website regularly on their own. Next parents should conduct a news search for the family’s name. This can be accomplished through a news aggregator like news.google.com but should also be conducted in the website of as many local papers as possible. Google does not crawl every newspaper and troubling incidents that may not rate coverage in a major paper may be mentioned in a smaller, local paper. Issues that parents should be aware of include domestic violence calls, arrests for drugs, or, if the host parent is driving the children somewhere, drunk driving arrests. One more step is to search a state’s Department of Correction Inmate Locator. Many states provide public access to this database and they maintain historical records. Parents can check to see if a member of a playmate’s family has been incarcerated.
Not finding a name on a registry or in the newspaper does not ensure safety – they are just tools parents can use. Not all pedophiles have been arrested much less convicted and forced to register. A parent who searched Jerry Sandusky prior to sending her son to the Second Mile would not have found anything. But, a parent doing a news search on Coach Ed in Personal Fouls may have read about the allegations against him in New Jersey.
There is no way to keep children completely safe and still allow them to live normal lives. This is true of disease and accidents and it is true of child sexual abusers. Parents can take common sense steps to protect their children from these threats and minimize the chances that their children will become sick, be seriously injured in an accident or fall prey to a sexual predator.
Hawks, A. (2011, 11 14). starcasm.net. Retrieved 11 19, 2011, from Transcript Bob Costas interviews Jerry Sandusky, Penn State coach accused of molesting boys: http://starcasm.net/archives/129338
O’Toole, M. E. (2011). Danerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray us. New York: Hudson Street Press.
Sandusky Grand Jury Presentment (Thirty-Third Statewide Investigating Grand hury November 2011).