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It was an uneventful shopping trip for Everett mom Denise Constantineau and her two young daughters. But when 9-year-old Sarah came from behind the display case, Denise knew instantly that something was wrong.

“There was a look on her face of fear,” she recalls. And, when she heard the story, Constantineau was scared, too. A strange woman had approached Sarah and asked if she wanted to go with her to look at some clothing.

“My daughter did exactly what she was supposed to do. She didn’t say anything. She just came to find me,” Constantineau says.

It’s the idea of that shadowy stranger, waiting to lure your child away when she’s alone, that’s the stuff of parent nightmares. But it’s probably the wrong nightmare, according to experts.

The known danger

“It’s very rare, really, to have a true stranger involved in a sexual assault on a child,” says Mary Robnett, supervising attorney for the special assault unit in the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. “It’s very terrifying to think about a stranger, but it’s probably people known to you and your family that pose the highest risk of sexual abuse.”

The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) reports that 90 percent of their clients in 2006 were sexually abused by a family member or acquaintance; only 10 percent were attacked by a stranger. A U.S. Department of Justice study in 2000 (the most recent year available) found that 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims knew their attacker.

The knowledge that “stranger danger” does not pose the major risk to children has been known for at least 25 years, experts say. Why, then, is so much attention placed on the threat of unknown sexual predators?

“Parents have a very difficult time imagining that people they know and trust are capable of harming their children,” Robnett says.

Warning signs

Much as children are “groomed” as sexual abuse victims, the parents are groomed as well, Robnett explains. The predators can be charming and helpful, and appear trustworthy.

But there are obvious warning signs that something’s not right, according to Lucy Berliner, clinical director for the Harborview Center for Traumatic Stress and Sexual Assault. “If someone wants to have an exclusive relationship with your children that doesn’t include you, that is extremely unusual,” she says.

Berliner says there are two basic questions you should answer for your child about the dangers of sexual abuse: “What kind of behavior do we mean by inappropriate touching and what do we want our kids to do about it, if it happens?”

Talking about danger

Magnolia mom Katy White says she and her husband started talking to her 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son about sexual abuse as soon as they were old enough to understand. “We would tell them that most people are good, but sometimes there are bad ones, and you can’t tell the difference by looking at them,” White says, “so you need to only trust the adults we tell you it’s OK to trust.”

Experts urge parents to practice “what if” scenarios with children: “What if you got lost in the store? What if someone you know and trust makes you feel uneasy?” If they can’t get out of a situation, teach your children to kick, scream and yell, “This person is not my father (or mother)!”

Telling your children not to talk to strangers can backfire. When he was lost in the Utah mountains, 11-year-old Brennan Hawkins might have been found sooner if he hadn’t hidden from rescuers because they were strangers.

But Lindsay Palmer, KCSARC director of education, says parents should be sure their kids know this about strangers: “Adults never need to ask kids for assistance. If an adult needs help, he asks another adult.”

Palmer says it’s good to talk to children about sexual abuse by saying that it is not okay to be touched in places a bathing suit would cover. “But, by the time that happens, it’s already gone too far,” she says. “We want them to come to us when they’re confused about something. We need to know these things before anything gets to the place where molestation has already occurred.”

No secrets

Sex offenders, Palmer says, often approach children in a way that will not make them uncomfortable — “sneaking a touch during roughhousing or putting on ointment for a sunburn. They’re looking for ways to make sexual abuse be OK, make it be normal. They’re using bribery, trickery, manipulation, everything they can.”

The idea of not keeping secrets should be introduced early to children, experts say. They should understand that surprises are OK; secrets are not. “My 4-year-old grandson will say, ‘Don’t tell my mom about that whipped cream you gave me,’ and I have to say, ‘No secrets, buddy,’” Berliner says.

Experts say you should begin with the knowledge that kids keep things from us when they think they’ll get into trouble or that we might not love them as much if we know what they’ve done. Your job is to let them know you’re glad they told you, even when it’s something you didn’t want to hear. “If you’re doing that, you’re already doing work toward prevention of sexual abuse,” Palmer says.

Above all, parents should realize that the best sexual abuse prevention is their own vigilance and open communication with their children.

“It’s a dialogue you start when they’re really young and keep evolving as they grow up,” White says. “I don’t see stopping teaching them this stuff — ever. I think it’s a lifelong process.”

Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and twin teenage daughters.

 

Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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