In the past week, Pennsylvanians were shocked to learn that two public figures, Pirates pitcher Felipe Vazquez and state senator Mike Folmer, had been arrested on offenses related to the sexual exploitation of children. Vazquez is charged with statutory sexual assault of a minor, who he first met when she was just 13 years old. Folmer is charged with multiple counts of possession of child pornography.
For many people, these arrests were stunning, not just because of the high profile of the accused, but because they appeared to be “good guys.” This brings up one of the enduring myth that people who sexually abuse children are sinister-looking individuals who are somehow easy to pick out of a crowd. The reality is that sexual predators rarely fit this description.
A majority of sex offenders are well-known or well-liked in their towns and cities. They are often considered upstanding members of their communities. In many cases, their friends and neighbors would not suspect them of abusing children. This facade may help them to hide in plain sight, or even give them cover for their abuse.
Take the case of Jerry Sandusky — another well-known Pennsylvanian whose arrest for multiple counts of child sexual abuse shocked the country. In addition to working as a football coach at Penn State, Sandusky fostered and adopted children with his wife through the state. He also founded a nonprofit organization, The Second Mile, that started as a group foster home for troubled boys and then expanded into a broader agency that was intended to help young people achieve their potential through camps and other activities. Until his arrest in 2011, Sandusky was generally regarded as a kind-hearted, generous member of the community who dedicated his life to giving back to others. It was only after his victims came forward with their stories that the truth about his charity work emerged. Sandusky is accused of using his work through the Second Mile — which received donations and support from prominent community members — to find his victims.
The vast majority (93%) of people who sexually abuse children know their victims. This further undermines the notion that sexual predators are monsters lurking in a public bathroom or an alley. In truth, a child who is sexually abused will most likely know their abuser. Of substantiated child sexual abuse cases, 59% of abusers were committed by acquaintances and 34% were committed by family members — and just 7% were committed by strangers.
Because abusers often hide in plain sight — and may even be people that you know and trust — it is important to talk to your children about their bodies (using anatomically correct terms), and their right to bodily autonomy. Give your kids permission to refuse to obey an older child or adult if they believe that what they are asking of them or what is happening is wrong. Make sure they know that they can talk to you about anything, and when you are talking to them about sexual assault, do so in an age-appropriate manner.
If you are struggling with how to talk to your kids about sexual abuse, we offer materials to help you with those conversations. Blackburn Center also provides educational programs to schools and community groups across Westmoreland County, free of charge, on topics that include sexual abuse. Contact us to learn more or to schedule a program.
Giving your children these tools is an important way to reduce the risk of sexual abuse. While you can pay attention to people who seem a little too “helpful,” it may not always be possible to spot predators. Empowering your children with information and the knowledge that they can talk to you can help to protect them against abuse.
While there is not one single sign that a child is being sexually abused, there are certain behaviors that may indicate that a child is in distress. If you believe that your child is being sexually abused or if they tell you that they have been sexually abused, it is important to remain calm. You can contact Blackburn Center 24 hours a day at 1-888-832-2272 or 724-836-1122 to speak to a crisis counselor. We offer a range of services to help victims of abuse, including children.
As recent news demonstrates, predators often hide in plain sight. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take steps to keep our kids safe. At Blackburn Center, we are dedicated to providing services to victims of crimes and abuse — and to working to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place. Reach out to us at any time if you need help or want to get involved in our mission.