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How to protect your children from predators
During a special community meeting last Thursday night, four of the people who deal directly with sex offenders and their victims on Whidbey Island inundated an audience with tips for keeping children safe, identifying kids who may have been victimized and recognizing predators.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Island County Sheriff’s Office and the new Oak Harbor Youth Commission. It was in response to community concerns about an unusual number of serious and high-profile cases involving alleged predators and sexual assaults on the island.
Detective Laura Price, who investigates sex crimes for the sheriff’s office, summed up the central message: “Just know your child. Pay attention to your child and the people in your child’s life. If something’s not right, you will notice.”
In addition to Price, the panel consisted of Lisa Lee, a Department of Corrections officer who supervises sex offenders and others; Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner, a supervisor and sex-crime investigator with the Oak Harbor police; and Margie Porter, the executive director of Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Assault.
Sheriff Mark Brown, who organized the presentation, said afterward that he was a little disappointed only about 40 people showed up for the discussion at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor. He said the initial shock in the community about the multiple cases may have worn off, but he hopes people will continue being vigilant without being paranoid.
“I hope you all understand just how complex this issue is,” he told the audience.
Brown and Lee spoke about registered sex offenders in the community. Brown said his office is responsible for monitoring the approximately 100 registered sex offenders in the county. Five are identified as Level 3, which means they are considered to be at the highest risk of reoffending.
Lee explained that community corrections officers have broad powers to supervise sex offenders and other criminals in their charge. They are spread thin, she said, but effective.
“The ones that aren’t caught are the ones we need to watch out for,” she said.
In her presentation, Price focused on describing sexual predator behavior, but started with a shocking statistic from the FBI.
“One in five girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually exploited by the time they reach 18,” she said. “Those are huge numbers.”
Price described how sexual predators “groom” children patiently over time.
“Child sexual predators are very astute at identifying the vulnerability of a child,” she said.
She said predators may target children with low self-esteem, those from dysfunctional families, kids whose credibility may be in question, children who appear to be sexually active or flirtatious, and lonely children seeking attention. The predators convince their victims that the abuse is their fault and they will get in trouble if they tell anyone.
In response to an audience member who said she had long suspected one of the men accused in a recent child molestation case of being “a creeper,” Price said people are always welcome to share their suspicions with the police, but sometimes the best they can do is focus on keeping the children around them safe.
“There’s no magic fairy dust you can sprinkle out there and they will all turn purple,” she said, referring to pedophiles.
Porter spoke about the many warning signs that a child may have been abused. Some of the signs, she said, may include unusual changes in behavior, nightmares, trouble walking or sitting, and inappropriate knowledge or interest in sexual activities.
Porter also discussed how to broach the subject matter with children.
“The message for you is keep talking to your children and don’t let them think their body parts are bad things,” she said.
Finally, Gardner focused on what to do if you suspect that a child may have been sexually assaulted. She explained that she and Porter are trained child forensic interview experts and are focused on gently getting information from children without suggesting anything to them in order to preserve a criminal case.
First of all, Gardner said, remain calm. Avoid leading questions. Ask general questions, like “Has anyone touched you in a way you didn’t like or made you do something you didn’t like?” Control your expression. Reassure the child that disclosure is the right thing to do and she or he won’t get in trouble.
Gardner stressed that any questioning should be limited to getting the information needed to keep the child safe. She said law enforcement should be called in to handle the investigation and ask in-depth questions. And don’t contact the alleged perpetrator.
“Your role is to listen, not to investigate,” she said. “You don’t need to know the entire story. … Get what you need to be able to turn it over to us.”