Part 2: Warning Signs

This is the second installment of a three-part series about my family’s experience with a potential child predator. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to start with Part 1: It’s Someone You Know. The concluding chapter is Part 3: Lessons Learned.

It must have been around the time that our children were born, around the year 2000 or so. We were attending church in Brecksville, the church in which we had been married a few years before. We wanted to take a more active role in youth fellowship. Some of the teens in the church had asked us to be advisers for the youth group, and we wanted to be more active in the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School programs.

At the time, there was a renewed emphasis on child abuse prevention, and to be involved with youth in the church in any kind of official capacity, we were required to attend a child abuse prevention training program. We weren’t happy about it. I’m a certified teacher. I work with kids all the time. This was just more red tape — more bureaucracy — just like background checks and TB tests and all the other hoops you have to jump through to do good things for kids these days. But we went.

4557822128_5d9ba71628[1]The program talked about child predators. We learned about warning signs. Watch out for adults who always seem to be around kids. Look for people who are involved in children’s programs, but not necessarily in similar adult programs. Pay attention to seemingly innocent physical contact. Child predators will frequently share “secrets” with children, and try to build a confidence and rapport from them that is separate from their parents. When grooming a potential victim, a child predator will frequently buy gifts and do favors for a child. While it’s possible that a predator may use innuendo and make sexual references, these are often extremely vague so they can be explained away easily. Predators often build a trust relationship with children, and work to contrive situations where they can be alone with kids.

We went to the training. We watched the videos. We had the uncomfortable conversations. We learned to spot potential predators. More than anything, I think we learned how to avoid having our innocent actions be misinterpreted as predatory. We completed the course and went on with our lives. We never saw anything out of the ordinary when working with kids at church. At times, we had to remind others of the policies that were in place to protect kids. There have to be two non-related adults in the room, for example. Kids don’t ride alone in a chaperone’s car. Sometimes, in the practicality of doing volunteer work, these are difficult rules to follow. But they’re important ones.

A decade later, these red flags started popping up. Where did this gift come from? Why is our neighbor outside every time our kids are in the yard? What do you mean you were playing “hide and seek” or “tag” during your art lesson? Individually, everything was innocent. But collectively, they didn’t add up.

How convenient it is that our neighbor likes geology as much as our children, and is willing to take them to Geo-Junior activities? It is a bit strange that he’s not in the adult lapidary club, though, isn’t it? Why does he only go to the kids’ events?

It’s very generous of him to offer painting lessons to our daughter. And yet, he won’t accept any kind of remuneration. He has two students, both of whom are teenage girls. That’s suspicious, but may also just be a coincidence. He will only teach them one at a time — never together. Also suspicious, but also explained away. He wants to be able to focus on each of them individually. And he’s retired. He has plenty of time for both of them.

He’s married to his second wife. He has children and grandchildren, but we don’t know anything about them. Why doesn’t he ever see them or talk about them? Where was he before he was here? He lived in Ohio, then moved to New Mexico, and then moved back. Why? He lived in the northwest. He lived in California. How does this all add up? What is the timeline? Why did he move around so much? I’m sure there are perfectly reasonable explanations, but he never seemed willing to talk about his past.

Online, he becomes a ‘friend.” My daughters have the blessing and curse that their parents are technological omnivores. For many children their age, the Internet is a place to go to avoid the watchful eye of the parents. But my kids had web sites before they were born. Their parents met online a decade before most people knew that the Internet existed. We are bloggers and Googlers and Facebookers and Twitterers. We’re hip enough to the online world to not describe ourselves as “hip.” So the children are involved online only to the extent necessary to participate in the cultural experience that defines their generation. It’s not a place for them to escape their parents.

Still, the neighbor was there. He would see the photos that were posted, and was quick to comment every time. He would chat whenever he noticed that the girls were online, even if he knew they were supposed to be doing other things. He would send emails, and they would reply. Frequently, these emails referred to face-to-face activities without much context. It was another way of building that personal, secret relationship. We share a common experience. We have a special bond.

The technology rules that we have in our house are very simple. The children are not permitted to sign up for any online services without parental approval. They are not creating accounts on any services without permission. When they do sign up for an account, their username and password are registered with Mom and Dad. These are kept in a safe place — an encrypted volume that only the parents have access to. Initially, this was to help them when they forgot their usernames and passwords. But it also helps us keep an eye on the breadth of their online presence.

In the online world, there is no pretense of anonymity. You will not be anonymous in anything you do on the Internet. This is true for everyone, even if they don’t believe it. In our house, it’s explicitly true. There’s also no sharing of accounts or passwords, and no pretending to be someone else on the Internet.

Email and chats are logged. That’s an easy one. In Gmail, chats are automatically archived unless you turn it off. Email forwarding can easily be set up as well. You can forward all incoming or outgoing email to a parent’s account. We may or may not be doing one or both of those things in our house. While the child can easily turn these off, doing so would immediately be noticed, because Mom would stop getting copies of the emails.

We don’t do these things to spy on our children. We don’t spy on our children. We don’t read everything they do online. We don’t log in to their accounts very often. But if there’s a question about what’s going on, we’re also not completely in the dark. When we started having suspicions about what was happening with the neighbor, we could look at the communication to see what was going on, without alarming the children. Then, when action needed to be taken, we included them.

I do want to emphasize here that the online communication was a very small part of a much larger personal relationship. There is an often-propagated perception that online predators are out there harvesting kids from the Internet. Maybe that’s true. But it’s a much smaller problem — an order of magnitude smaller, at least– than the problem of children being abused by people they know. That isn’t an Internet problem. Safety online is important, but it’s not nearly as important as safety in the physical world.

Our case was an extremely fortunate one. I do not believe that either of my children was a victim of a sexual predator. But I do believe that they were being groomed by a neighbor over the course of three years, and that they would have become victims if we had not stepped in. As their parents, we happened to have the training to spot a potential threat, and even so we were slow to react and may have unnecessarily put our children in danger. I am happy that the threat was identified, that we took action out of caution, and that our decision to end the relationship turned out to be the right one. But it was a very difficult journey.

Photo source: Spcbrass on flicker.

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