Child Sexual Abuse

A Discussion with Dr. Leigh Baker Author of Protecting your Children from Sexual Predators

Why I wrote this book:

handsI have learned that this war can’t be won by one person, or for that matter a handful of politicians, scientists, psychologists, and law enforcement, it can only be won if parents come to the forefront of this battle. Parents hold the strategic key to ending this war and therefore they must be armed with the proper knowledge in order to defend children. Therefore, I decided to write this book in order to give parents all of the knowledge that I have accumulated throughout the years and through hundreds of interviews with sexual predators and their victims so that they can stop this terrible crime from occurring.

What is the most important thing for parents to know about protecting their children from sexual predators?

Once again, I need to emphasize that parents need to know that they CAN do something to prevent child sex abuse. However, they need to have as much information as possible in order to do this. What parents learn through the media about child sex abuse is very incomplete, but often viewed as the truth. Parents need to learn the real issues involved in sex abuse and not just what is popularized by the media. We know that despite our best intentions, one out of four children will be exposed to some form of sexual abuse. To prevent their child from becoming one of these unfortunate statistics, parents need to be educated about sexual abuse. Only when parents are fully aware of all the issues involved in sex abuse, can they responsibly set up a program of prevention that will become as much a part of their children’s lives as wearing seat belts.

What are some of the signs parents can look for that may indicate their child has been sexually abused?

There are behaviors that are commonly found in children who are sexually abused. They are divided up into behavioral symptoms that are most commonly found in the various developmental stages of a child. For instance, a two-year-old child will display different behaviors if he or she has been sexually abused than an adolescent. It is important that parents become familiar with these signs for even if children do not admit to sexual abuse, their behaviors will definitely communicate distress.

Children speak through their behavior. That is why child psychologists use play therapy to understand the conflicts that a young person may be experiencing. In particular, very young children are not able to put into words what has happened to them and thus it is up to the parents to interpret what their child is saying through their behaviors.

Overall, I urge parents to look for a change in their child’s normal routine, behaviors, or attitude. Sudden mood changes and regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking, baby talk, and bedwetting, usually indicates that a young child is in distress. In older children distress expresses itself in a drop in school performance, aggressive behavior, isolation, and a lack of interest in usual activities. In adolescents, parents can look for rebellious behaviors such as the use of drugs or truancy, or a gradual withdrawal from friends and family. Depression and suicidal ideation may also accompany these behavioral changes.

What are some tips for safeguarding children while they are on the computer?

It is critical that parents know all the ways that their child can be exposed to sexual abuse on the Internet, from unwanted solicitation, to traveling to meet an “Internet acquaintance.” It is also important that if children are using the computer, that parents learn how to use it as well. If parents are not computer savvy, they will not be able to effectively monitor their child’s activities on the Internet.

Two of the most important ways to safeguard a child when he or she is on the computer is to first install software that will automatically block inappropriate material from coming up on the screen. However, parents should not assume that if they install these programs that their child is completely safe. There is not any software on the market that can protect a child from all of the dangers found on the Internet. Therefore, the next important step is to develop a safety program for computer use. This involves the cooperation of the whole family and assumes that parents will be monitoring their child’s computer use. My book outlines a comprehensive safety program that parents can follow to ensure that their child does not become a victim of cyber sexual abuse.

How can parents draw the line between being overly cautious, and irresponsible about protecting their children?

This is an excellent question and one that I receive many times from my parents. There is a fine line between preserving children’s privacy and having total access to their activities, however whenever there is a potential for harm, parents need to take the necessary steps to protect their children.

A healthy family is one that allows for open communication and a free sharing of ideas and emotions. In this type of atmosphere there are no secrets and family members help one another to solve problems. They engage in activities together and thus, computers, televisions, and VCR’s are often in a family room and are used to enhance the communication between family members. Sexual predators will maneuver their child victims into a secretive and exclusive relationship so that the abuse can occur. Therefore, in a family where there are no secrets, sexual abuse is less likely to happen.

In healthy families there is also room for individuation and privacy. Children are encouraged to separate in healthy ways, to spend time alone and with their peers, and to have some measure of privacy such as keeping diaries and journals. However, whenever a parent senses that their child is in distress, the normal rules of privacy should be temporarily disregarded. A child’s room should never be totally off limits to a parent for it is in the child’s room that the parent can gain valuable information about the inner life of their child. I am not advocating that a parent regularly snoop in a child’s room, searching drawers, closets, and diaries for information, but I have often encouraged concerned parents to read the diary of their estranged teenager to discern whether he or she is suicidal or experiencing emotions that are overwhelming and potentially dangerous. I have also asked parents to look for drug paraphernalia in a child’s room when they are suspecting that their child is using drugs. It is only when parents are aware of danger can a tragedy be averted.

It seems there are more cases of sexual assaults than ever before. Are these types of crimes increasing? What do you thing causes that?

This is a good question and one that has been debated extensively. The sexual abuse of children has been around for as long as recorded history and psychologists have been studying its devastating effects on children since the mid 1900’s. Researchers who collect retrospective studies on child sex abuse agree that sex abuse has been a significantly underreported crime even with the amount of press it is receiving these days. There is no doubt that there is a growing awareness of child sex abuse the last few decades, but the jury is still out on whether or not there is an actual increase in the incidence of child sexual abuse.

There are certain problems that exist in our society that make it easier for sexual predators to gain access to our children. The vast amount of children surfing the Internet, the increase in the use of babysitters, daycare facilities and after-school care, and the amount of freedom that many parents offer their children these days, are all factors that contribute to the vulnerability of our children to sexual predators. The prevalence of explicit sexual stimuli that is now proliferated on television, movies, the Internet, and magazines, definitely gives the message that as far as sex is concerned everything and anything is acceptable. For adolescents who are in a very vulnerable state of their own sexual development these messages can be very dangerous and lead to the experimental exploitation of younger children.

Can a sexual predator ever be cured?

This is a question that even the most experienced experts in the field examine and they often disagree as to the answer. In my book, I take the reader through a typical treatment program for sex offenders so that they understand what sex offenders must do and say in order to really change their behaviors. I also introduce the readers to a single mother with two small children. She is considering a relationship with a man who was accused of sexually abusing his niece. Through her experiences with this man, I hope that parents can get a clearer picture of what they need to look for to determine if a sex offender is safe with their child.

As parents will learn, there are many different types of sex offenders and some of them are less likely to re-offend. These are usually adolescents who experimented with sex, or influenced by their peers. With proper intervention, these people are less likely to re-commit a sexual offense. There are also factors that will decrease a person’s likelihood to re-offend such as family support, steady employment, no prior legal history, and most importantly, their continued involvement in treatment.

In preparing to write this book, I interviewed hundreds of sexual predators as well as a multitude of law enforcement personnel, and therapists, and I have concluded that sexual offense is a complicated issue and that no one definitively knows what causes a person to be a sexual offender. If we knew that, we would have a better chance at controlling it in the future. However, once a person has crossed the line into sexually offending against another, it is more likely that this person will repeat the behavior in the future. Therefore, to be rehabilitated, an offender must take total responsibility for the abuse, and be completely committed to a sex offender treatment program. This usually means that the offender will not only self-monitor his or her behaviors but that he or she will allow other to know about the sexual offense. Rehabilitation is not a six-month, or even a three-year program, it must become a life-long commitment to recovery for the sexual predator to be considered safe.