ITHACA, N.Y. (The Ithaca Voice) -- A Tompkins County sex abuse expert half-jokingly said she wishes she could make a change to the sex offender registry online. Next to a convicted offender's sullen mugshot, she wishes she could post a photo of the person opening a Christmas present.
That, she said, is what a sex offender looks like: anybody's friend, family member or co-worker.
In child or teen sex abuse cases, 85 to 90 percent of incidents involve an offender who is known and often trusted by adults and family members, said Heather Campbell, executive director at The Advocacy Center of Tompkins County,
That trust, she said, is often not haphazardly misplaced. It's earned after a person pours energy and time -- sometimes years -- into gaining people's trust through a process called grooming.
“I think it helps (to) address some of the denial that people have about identifying child sexual abuse and also understanding the dynamics about how it is that there can be sex offenders living in our community who may offend again and again and again,” she said.
How a sex offender grooms a child and parents
"When we talk about the pattern of grooming we’re talking about the pattern where an adult accommodates (habituates) the child to the abusive behaviors and normalizes it,” she said.
The behavior, though, doesn't often start explicit. It happens slowly, sneakily and is always dependent on ensuring a child can keep a "secret."
"It may start with the hand on the shoulder…that just accommodates the child of being close to them. And then maybe they start telling some off color jokes,” she said. "Sometimes they even do these things in front of other adults.”
That shows the child that the comments and the touching are okay. If it wasn't, surely an adult would have intervened.
Then offenders find a way to increase physical contact somehow.
Campbell told an anecdote about a game an offender played with a child. The two spelled words on each other's back and the person facing away had to guess the word. Then the game transitioned into spelling words on each other's chest. Then the offender suggested that the child lift his or her shirt to be able to guess words better. Over a period of time, that game progressed to the abuse.
"At that point the child or teen can feel almost complicit,” Campbell said. “And so offenders can really manipulate kids into feeling like they’re a part of this – that they didn’t speak up -- and can really manipulate that."
Another way offenders trap kids into feeling complicit has been developing at a more common rate over the past 10 years or so. The adult shows a child pornography.
"What offenders are also doing is they’re taking advantage of kids’ developmentally expected curiosity about sexuality. You know kids -- teens, tween in particular -- they're really curious about this thing we call adult sexuality,” she said.
So where are the child or teen's parents while this is going on? Probably leaving their kid with the adult, who they have come to trust and know well over a period of time.
This isn't a "bad parenting" issue
“I think it’s also really important to note...that sex offenders don’t just groom kids they groom adults. ..they're often really working to make themselves seem really trustworthy, really safe.”
The offender could offer to pick a child up from soccer practice while a parent is stuck at work. They can offer to babysit to give mom and dad a date night. They can take a special interest as a coach to a child's ability or training.
None of those are red flag in and of themselves. But the same way a well meaning friend would offer to do those things to help out or be kind, is the same way a sex offender would offer a hand.
And often times, the offense can be even worse.
An offender can be somebody a family has known for years -- a childhood friend, somebody a parent went to college with, a longtime colleague. A helping hand from those people would never arouse suspicion.
"I've talked with parents who have called our hotline who are anguished,” Campbell said. Because not only did an offender take advantage of a child, they also took advantage of an adult who is supposed to protect a child.
And there is no fool-proof checklist for how to separate well-intentioned friends and family members from sexual predators.
Identifying the questionable behavior
Campbell and others at the Advocacy Center go into the community and give prevention talks throughout the year. They go to churches, schools and even to people's living room. Again and again, they hear the same kind of comment.
"I hear what you're saying and I believe you. I believe your statistics….but I emotionally cannot look around the people in my life and think that it may be one of them. It’s just too hard,” Campbell recalls regularly hearing.
There's the rub. Campbell said the center doesn't want people to be afraid to trust others or hesitate in making meaningful relationships. That's no way to live. But there are tips people can be mindful of day-to-day.
None of the tips are 100 percent indicators that person could be a sex offender, but they are points to consider.
A person with no adult friends, but who makes plenty of time to spend with children or teens
An adult who consistently arranges to be alone with children
Ignoring requests by a child or adult to stop physical interactions, such as hugs or kisses
Persistent offers to babysit
Acting angry or annoyed if alone time with children is interrupted
People who consistently seek out work or volunteer opportunities to be alone with children
A person who always has a young "special friend" who is often around
Somebody who frequently doesn't respect requests for privacy, such as changing in a separate room than children and barging in on children in the bathroom
A person who talks about sex or makes sexually explicit references in front of children, especially after being asked to stop.
Campbell said,"Trust your gut. If you're getting that feeling as an adult…it could be good to ask yourself some questions and ask ‘What about this behavior is uncomfortable?'"
Campbell stressed that a parent doesn't have to be paranoid or accusatory. A simple, "Don't tell those kinds of jokes in front of the kids," goes a long way. It lets even well intentioned people know what's appropriate and lets predators know you're being observant and careful, and protective.
But the most important thing parents can do to help prevent child sex abuse is to be proactive about discussing the issue.
Don't have "The Talk." Just talk.
That awkward birds and the bees talk that parents everywhere dread having to have with their kids? Erase that misconception. Because there should be a lot more than "the talk" happening. Sexuality, consent and wellness should be ongoing, age-appropriate conversations that happen from childhood through adulthood.
“In the same way we teach kids about how to cross the street safely, we need to teach them how to be with other people in the world safely," Campbell said.
For instance, she said that her young son holds her hand when they cross the street together.Some day, they'll cross the street together without holding hand. Then she'll cross fist and wave him over. And at some point, he'll be able to cross the street safely alone.
“But I don’t sit him down one day and say, 'There are trucks and they could squish you.' It wouldn't be helpful. It wouldn’t be accurate. And it wouldn’t be equipping him with developmentally appropriate information," she said.
The same should go for these talks about sexuality talks with children.
For instance, Campbell said a child can learn about good touches, bad touches and uncomfortable touches. They can learn to practice 'no means no' during everyday occasions, such as tickling or cuddling. And they can learn that even from a young age, they have a certain amount of autonomy -- that they don't have to give their great-aunt they've never met a hug and a kiss if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
As children get older, those conversations turn into discussions about consent for everything from hand holding to having sex with a partner who clearly confirms consent.
"It really is just finding those teachable moments,” Campbell said.