The graphic, heart-wrenching testimony of witnesses and victims in the Sandusky trial this week has prompted me to highlight some important lessons about sexual predators and the children who become their victims. Divorced moms with sons face particular challenges as parents, and the Sandusky case is the realization of a mother's worst fears. A few of the most important lessons follow.
The testimony of the victims this week highlights some of the typical features of the sexual predators of young children. Many are charismatic, successful, in responsible positions teaching or supervising children, often described (as Sandusky was) as having "a heart of gold" because of their public demonstrations of concern for vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and frequently married men, some with families. There is rarely only one victim unless the predator is young, inexperienced, and impulsive. For most predators, there are a series of victims over a long period of time, years or even decades. The most important take-away: these are NOT the creepy old men in raincoats who jump out of the bushes. These guys are quite literally wolves in sheep's clothing.
Most sexual predators of children work at developing opportunities to victimize children. The behavior is very much like a wolf stalking a vulnerable young deer and waiting for an opportunity to separate it from the herd. Sandusky appears to be prototypical. He had a job which gave him access to children away from their parents. He started a non-profit organization which gave him even more access to kids, and easy access to the most vulnerable children. He cultivated relationships with a few of the most vulnerable children by giving them time, attention, and unique opportunities which required the kids to be alone with him away from other adults and children. He was publicly affectionate (but not too affectionate so as not to arouse suspicions) with his victims and with other kids in his care. He created private moments with these children and gradually increased the level of both affection and pressure to engage in sexual behavior that confused and paralyzed these vulnerable kids. Then he threatened them with the loss of his affection and of their special opportunities to keep them quiet.
Children of divorce are particularly vulnerable when fathers fail to remain engaged with their kids, boys or girls. The trauma of divorce is magnified greatly when the ongoing conflict between parents is resolved by the dad withdrawing from the conflict and failing to regularly and faithfully exercise his right to visitation. These kids who have been abandoned by their dads are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and victimized.
Lessons for divorced moms-- the red flags...
1. There is NO good reason for a coach to shower with a young child, especially alone. Ever.
2. There is NO good reason for a coach or teacher to have a young child in their home overnight for a "sleepover". Ever.
3. There is NO good reason for a coach or teacher to take ONE child out of town to a school event and spend ANY time alone with them in a hotel room. Period.
4. When a child reports something that sounds even remotely sexual about an interaction with some adult or teacher, BELIEVE them. (More than 95% of children's sexual abuse reports, outside of divorce litigation, are confirmed sooner or later.)
Children hide real incidents of sexual abuse for years and will suffer in silence out of fear and loyalty. Most abusers are people that the children know, not strangers. It is not unusual for children who have been victimized to make an outcry and then recant, in fact, it's almost routine.
Moms who take the time to listen to their children, and are sensitive to the distress in their children, will eventually find out if their kids have been victimized. Unfortunately, many single moms, especially those who are literally raising their kids alone, are so busy just surviving that they don't have the time to listen carefully to their kids, and the kids know it.
It is important for those of us who care about kids to be alert to those signals that an adult is "just too interested" in children who are vulnerable. When some adult is just too affectionate with a child, pay attention. When you know the child comes from divorced family, especially if the dad is not actively involved with his kids, pay close attention. These vulnerable kids need us to protect them.
Note: Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts, remanded to custody, and will be sentenced in the near future. One juror commented that the verdict "was never in doubt".