The reality of child predators
If you enter the zip code, 7-7-0-5-6, into any sex offender database, you will find less than ten registered sex offenders living in Tanglewood. A minuscule number compared to just about any Houston area zip code. But before you breathe a sigh of relief understand this: that number only represents the convicted sex offenders who have registered with the state. There are many more in the that have never been caught, and who they are may surprise you.
“We have to dispel the myth that people who abuse children are seedy characters or bad looking people. Most kids are actually abused by someone they know, many times by family members or friends of the family,” says Dr. Lawrence Thompson, director of therapy and psychological service for The Children’s Assessment Center in the Village. He says it’s more prevalent a problem than people might think.
And perpetrators often come in the form of otherwise trusted and respected authority figures. “They are people like pastors or policemen or teachers. People we tell our kids to trust with no questions asked, but unfortunately some of these sex offenders assume those positions to gain access to kids,” explains Dr. Thompson.
Researchers say that one in every four girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. Alarming numbers, but what’s even more disturbing is that most experts believe those numbers fall short of the true count of victims because so many cases go unreported. Thompson says that’s because getting kids to keep quiet is part of the predator’s strategy of exploitation.
“One of the lynchpins is the perpetrator getting the child to keep it a secret so that it can continue. The adult could be impacting the child’s ability to tell someone,” explains Dr. Thompson.
Peta-Gay Rhinehart has been studying the profile of a predator for half of her life. This 20-year survivor of a sexual assault became a nurse examiner for victims of sexual abuse. She is now training to counsel victims at the Houston Area Women’s Center.
Peta-Gay’s attacker was a stranger, but most aren’t. Ninety percent of perpetrators are someone that the child knows. Someone who will spend weeks or even months carefully plotting their seduction and attack.
“When they spend that much time grooming a child, the child tends to believe that somehow it’s their fault. So they don’t tell and I’m seeing where the child doesn’t even think that what happened to them was wrong. And they end up having a protective attitude toward the predator,” says Peta-Gay.
Janet Pozmantier is a program director at Child Builders. One of her programs, WHO or We Help Ourselves, teaches school-aged kids about healthy and appropriate relationships. Pozmantier warns students, that abuse often starts with a seemingly innocent friendship which escalates when the predator employs persuasion, making their victims feel loved. That’s why she points out that it is especially destructive for the victim to be blamed.
“Blaming the victim is very easy to do, especially when we don’t want to believe that the perpetrator could do something like that. A lot of times the perpetrators can be very well loved in the community and very well respected. So instead, they look at what did the victim do to make the offender do that,” says Janet.
Young people are often prime targets for sexual abuse because of their vulnerability. In just the last two years, more than 9,000 children and their families have sought services at The CAC, which aids children and non-offending families who are affected by sexual abuse. Some of their victims are as young as toddlers. Myrna Engler, LMSW works there as a bilingual therapist and a mother of two teenage girls.
“Perpetrators purposefully choose victims they can manipulate. They build a child’s trust by paying a lot of special attention to the child. This special attention may be seen as positive to the child, especially if the perpetrator is a professional person such as a coach or teacher who may temporarily build up the child’s self esteem,” says Myrna.
That’s why some consider it invaluable to give kids plenty of information. The kind of information that students will soon be receiving at Pin Oak Middle School through Child Builders’ WHO program. The urgency of teaching students how to protect themselves was heightened at this campus after a suspected incident involving a teacher.
Principal Michael McDonough says the school is finalizing plans to begin the WHO program with eighth-grade students next semester.
“We are confident the program will bring more information to this group of kids, and will help them make wise decisions in the coming years. The transition from middle school to high school is a challenge for many reasons, and that is why we choose this particular group of students…we believe that students will make good decisions when they realize they have choices,” says Michael McDonough.
They will also get straightforward information about predators.
“In the WHO program, we reiterate constantly that nobody has the right to victimize you. Yes, you can be in situations where you make mistakes, but it still doesn’t give anybody the right to hurt you,” explains Janet Pozmantier.
The other part of the solution is to educate children earlier at home, empowering them with the knowledge that there are people who exist that may touch them inappropriately. The problem with this advice, Dr. Thompson points out, is that kids and adults are often uncomfortable talking about sex.
“Parents should have the conversation with kids about appropriate and inappropriate touch,” says Dr. Thompson. Not talking about it does not make abuse less likely to happen.
Parents must be willing to maintain open communication with their children and be able to hear any tough issues that children may bring up. Also, parents should be aware of their child’s behavior and take note if their child seems withdrawn, sad, and is acting out in a manner that is not typical of the child.
It is natural to assume that girls are the usual victims. Boys, however, are victims too. And often times the aftereffects go unnoticed because boys are raised to not be sensitive or show emotion.
“Boys keep sexual abuse a secret due to the social stigma attached to sexual abuse of males, however, boys, too, are affected emotionally. They may feel powerless and not in control of their life,” says Myrna.
Myrna adds that because kids are resilient, they are able to work through the trauma in therapy and learn a lot about boundaries and protecting themselves.
Rice University student Kenda Hartley sounds wiser than her 20 years. She is training to counsel sex abuse victims for a local hotline through a premier class at Rice called, Survey of Sexual Violence. She is also active with a campus group called, Students Organized Against Rape.
“The number one thing we tell survivors is that it’s not their fault. They did nothing wrong. They did not deserve it in any way shape or form, and they did not cause it to happen no matter what they were wearing or doing. No one has the right to do that to you,” says Kenda.
Her passion to help others comes from her own pain of a sexual assault by a close friend during her freshman year at Rice.
“After that, I decided people shouldn’t have to go through this,” says Kenda.
The single fact that remains most troubling to these experts is that so many predators escape prosecution, usually shielded by the silence of those they’ve attacked.
Make no mistake about it; this is a felony crime. This year, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office filed 2,000 child abuse charges; two-thirds of them were sexual offenses. The most common offenses in Harris County are: sexual assault of a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child. The only difference is the latter offense is with a child 13-years-old or younger. If convicted, it carries a punishment from five to 99 years or life in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, first offenders are eligible for probation, while many others are never even reported.
The unpunished abuse and betrayal leaves victims suffering, often secretly for years, even decades. Many develop rape trauma syndrome, a condition much like post traumatic stress disorder. It’s easily triggered by something as simple as an old picture, an anniversary, even a smell. Long-suppressed memories start flashing back into a victim’s mind, resurrecting the crisis and its pain.
Peta-Gay has counseled some of these women. Many come to the Houston Area Women’s Center for free counseling although come from higher socio-economic areas.
“The reason they’re coming in is because they have to hide it. They couldn’t have anything hit their insurance; they couldn’t pay for anything or the husband would know, but they have to talk about it,” says Peta-Gay.
But there is hope. When victims find the courage to talk, they take the first major step towards healing that’s lasting and meaningful.