The stereotype of the child predator driving an ice cream truck or working as a clown at children´s parties is exactly that — a stereotype. Many respectable people hold those jobs, and many credentialed professionals in other fields are child predators. Having spent decades prosecuting child molesters, my experiences are consistent with research: they are more likely to target children they already know.
The goal for parents is to avoid advertising their young family to strangers, who might attempt to make an approach, for all the wrong reasons.
Sexual Predators are Rational, and Relational
Sex offenders are often stereotyped as spontaneous creatures, at the mercy of instinct and unable to control their impulses. Research, however, indicates this is not true. A study by Rebocho and Gonçalves entitled "Sexual Predators and Prey: A Comparative Study of the Hunting Behavior of Rapists and Child Molesters" (2012) revealed that many sexual predators are rational decision makers.
They identified three types of sexual offenders: manipulative, opportunist, and coercive.
They found that child molesters are more likely to be manipulative offenders, hunting for victims with premeditation and a nonrandom selection process. They explain that these offenders target known victims, with whom they already have a relationship, whether close or casual, as opposed to strangers.
Rebocho and Goncalves explain that although manipulative offenders make contact with their victims in routine daily activities, they lure them into settings where they are in control. They cite prior research that shows that most child molesters commit their crimes close to where they live, and in private areas, such as their own residence, the residence of the victim, or at the home of a relative or friend.
They characterize their results as consistent with this prior research, finding manipulative offenders most likely to commit the crime indoors, most often in the residence of the victim or the offender.
As a practical matter, this means they have to make contact with the children with the goal of becoming a "safe" person, not a stranger. Because approaching a child directly is often perceived as the red flag it is, predators often ingratiate themselves with the child´s parents instead, with the ultimate goal of acquiring access to the child.
In order to target the parents, predators have to know who has kids. Unfortunately, some parents unintentionally make that too easy.
Strangers Who Want to Meet You to Meet Your Children
Many people avoid showcasing their young family to strangers, either on or offline. Other parents are more forthcoming. They have bumper stickers announcing they are the proud parents of an elementary school honor student (naming the school), or they have five adorable turtle stickers on the back windshield of their SUV complete with the children´s names — and respective ages as distinguished by size.
Information about your children may be endearing to the vast majority of upstanding observers, but dangerous to the small percentage of predators. Predators can follow you, and approach you in public, full of such charm and charisma that you will never guess their true intentions in making contact. Many of them are masters of impression management, wearing business suits, driving high-end luxury vehicles, and having mastered the art of communication.
Advertising your children´s names, either on the back of your car or on the back of their shirts, also makes approach easier when you are not with them, because names enable strangers to feign familiarity. "Hi Justin, your mom asked me give you a ride today. We will be picking up Dan and Suzie too."
Also avoid disclosing personal details about your children on virtual networks where you do not know much about the other users. If you use virtual neighborhood networking sites such as Nextdoor, remember that proximity does not equal safety. What does the next-door neighbor of the ax murderer always say? "But he seemed like such a nice guy!" And do not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by attractive home exteriors; unless you know the occupants personally, you know next to nothing about the neighbors in your network.
When Privacy is the Best Policy, Even in Public
Staying safe does not require paranoia, but proactivity, with a priority on privacy. Familiarize yourself with the tricks and tactics used by child predators in order to take steps to protect your family. Talk to other parents, and share experiences and safety strategies. Together, we can improve our collective ability to keep each other safe.
Portions of this article were first published in my Psychology Today column.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 2,500 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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