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Helping prevent child sexual abuse before it happens
Sexual predators prey on children in a number of ways. Some use the Internet to stalk children, while others abuse their roles in positions of authority to take advantage of them.
Regardless of the method of predation, experts say having an open dialogue between parents and their children can prevent abuse from occurring -- or at the very least, put an end to it as soon as it begins.
Parents of younger children should ensure their children feel comfortable telling a trusted adult if someone is making them feel uncomfortable, said Janetta Michaels, vice president of operations at the Children's Advocacy Center of Collin County.
"One way to do this is by making talking about their bodies and healthy body boundaries part of the regular conversation," Michaels said. "Parents should tell their children it is not OK for anyone to touch their private parts, and it is not OK for anyone to make a child touch their private parts or show them a picture of someone's private parts. One of the biggest things is to really talk with their children and make it not be taboo."
Michaels said the No.1 thing parents should do is tell the child to listen to their gut feeling and tell someone they trust if anything is going on that makes them feel uncomfortable.
"There are certainly some signs that parents can look for, but they need to understand the signs could also point to depression or bullying," Michaels said. "Parents should pay attention if their child has a change in behavior, a drop in grades or if a child doesn't want to go to a particular relative's house. If they see a change, then they need to ask some questions."
While younger children may seem more vulnerable since they are less able to defend themselves, teenagers are frequently targeted by online sexual predators, said Plano PD Detective Jeff Rich.
"Parents may check their email or go to Amazon.com, but they don't venture too far out," said Rich, who is also deputized with the FBI and the U.S. Marshals. "But kids, they go all over the place, including parts [of the Internet] we don't monitor."
Children can fall prey to online predators in a variety of ways, said Rich, who has focused on catching sexual predators for the past 13 years. One of the most common methods is for the adult to pose as a teenager in order to befriend their intended victim, he said.
"We know that predators lie about their age and their occupation," he said. "Studies have shown that one in five teens have been sexually solicited over the Internet and one in four teens have been exposed to sexually explicit pictures. The official numbers say that there are 50,000 sexual predators online [at any given time], but I think that number is actually far higher."
Rich said social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace are not bad, but they do allow teenagers to be taken advantage of.
"Instead of our children looking for friends that they know, they do what we call a quantified popularity where they try and get as many friends on their friends list as they can," he said. "They are very accepting of friend requests even if they don't know the person."
One way predators get victims to obey their demands is through what Rich called "sextortion." He said a predator does this by getting an embarrassing or explicit photo of the victim, which is often received via webcam when the predator is posing as a teenager. The predator then extorts the victim into doing other things such as meeting them in person, by threatening to release the photo to all of the victim's friends if they don't comply.
Regardless of what safeguards are put in place to protect children, Michaels said it is ultimately up to parents and other trusted adults to prevent abuse from happening.
"While we can talk about safety measures, we cannot put the responsibility on the child," Michaels said. "Unequivocally, as adults, it is our responsibility to know where our children are, know who they are around and to monitor their Internet activity."
For information on child sexual abuse, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at www.missingkids.org.
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