Part 3: Lessons Learned

This is the finale of a three-part series chronicling my family’s experience with a potential child predator. You may want to start with Part 1: It’s Someone You Know and Part 2: Warning Signs.

For us, the story is over. The neighbor has been sentenced. While he still lives behind us, I expect that his tenure in the neighborhood is probably drawing to a close. It’s certainly clear that he is not going to have any more interaction with my children, which is fine with me.

3248283617_c23445ea31[1]But we are the product of our experiences. And this experience makes me suspicious. Where are my children going? How are they spending their time? Who is home at that friend’s house they’re visiting? I’m much less a fan of sleepovers and play dates and letting my children out of my sight. But that’s not healthy for them or me. There’s no more risk to them now than there was three years ago before all this happened. But you can bet we’re paying attention. No, you’re not going to ride in coach’s car unless there are others in the car too. You will take your cell phone with you, and you’ll call if anything happens that makes you feel threatened or uncomfortable. You’re not running or biking alone. You will always let us know where you are and what you’re doing.

We will drive you crazy, my children, with our involvement in your lives. We want to know your friends. We want to know their parents. Where do they live? What do they do? We’re going to judge people by how they treat one another, and by the decisions they make and the actions and attitudes they demonstrate. We’re probably not going to force you to disassociate with people, but we will help you make your own decisions about the kinds of people you choose to spend your time with.

We’re going to continue to monitor your online activity. We do not want to know everything you’re thinking and doing and saying. But we do want to know if you’re putting yourself in danger. Most of all, we want to be able to follow up on other warning signs. We are not spies. We will respect your privacy, unless you give us a reason not to. But know that we’re still the parents, and we need the tools to help you through this.

We’re going to pay attention to the adults you spend time with, and we’re going to be more suspicious of them than we were in the past. We will question the person who directs children’s theater productions but doesn’t seem to have any interest in adult casts. We will wonder about the coach who is passionate about girls’ basketball or soccer or track, but doesn’t seem to care about those sports for boys. We will be suspicious of the person who gives private music lessons but doesn’t seem to be interested in performing on her instrument of choice or teaching adults. We’re not going to automatically judge these people as harmful, but we’re going to give them additional scrutiny.

3872738624_cdeac87688[1]In the wild, the most dangerous place to be is between a mother and her children. If you find yourself between a mother bear and her cub, you’re in trouble. In Kenya, we found ourselves too close to the baby elephant, and yet not quite far enough away from Mamma. She let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we were too close. Our driver was smart enough to get us out of there before she felt the need to protect her baby. We are going to be much more like that Mamma elephant because we now have experience with people threatening our babies.

But most of all, we’re going to err on the side of caution. I don’t need proof that there’s a serious threat. I only need a suspicion. On some level, instinct takes over. If it doesn’t feel right — if intuition is telling us that something is wrong — we’re going to act on it. So we’ll wear the badge of the overprotective parents if we have to. But we will protect our kids, and we’ll teach them to protect themselves.

And what can you do, faithful blog reader? You can pay attention to relationships between children and adults in your life. You can be aware of warning signs, like these:

  • Child predators may push social, emotional, and physical boundaries.

  • Child predators may try to arrange opportunities to be alone with children.

  • Child predators may use inappropriate innuendo when communicating with children.

  • Child predators may offer to babysit, take children on special outings, and buy gifts for children.

  • Child predators may show an inappropriate level of interest in or affection for a particular child or children.

  • Child predators may try to get children to communicate online with them, away from the watchful eyes of parents and other adults.

  • Child predators may share too much personal information with children.

  • Child predators may encourage children to lie to or mislead their parents.

  • Child predators may be interested in activities that allow them to be around children, even though they have little interest in analogous activities for adults.

  • Child predators may seem to relate better to children than adults.

  • Child predators may take an unusual interest in children, even if they have no children of their own.

You don’t have to have evidence that a person had ill-intent to remove your child from the situation. When it comes to your children, you’re the boss. You don’t have to accuse the adult of anything. Just indicate that you’re acting in the interest of child safety. If there’s an online component, contact the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for help. If you want more resources, check out this page from Safely Ever After and this article from Modern Mom.

Edit: I also really like this list of 8 Red Flags for Identifying Child Predators.  It’s the list we originally used when we cut off the art lessons, but I couldn’t find it when I originally posted this article.

Finally, teach your children how to get out of uncomfortable situations. Give them tools to help them know when they’re in danger and how to get out. They know not to take candy from or get in cars with strangers. But what should they do when someone they know makes them feel uncomfortable? Who can they talk to? Hopefully, there’s an adult besides Mom and Dad that they can confide in.

I have a friend who established an elaborate phone code with her children. If they’re somewhere and want her to come get them immediately, they can call her. “Don’t forget to record my show,” they’ll say. That means “I’m feeling uncomfortable and want you to come get me.” Mom can make up an excuse, come up with an emergency, or just step in and get the child without raising any alarms. That’s not a bad system to put in place.

I wish we didn’t have to worry about these things. I wish we lived in a world where the idea of hurting children were so far beyond the realm of our wildest nightmares that it would never occur to anyone to actually do it. But we don’t live in that world. And until we do, we have to protect our kids.

Photo sources: Thecrazyfilmgirl on Flickr and, uhh, me.

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Part 2: Warning Signs

This is the second installment of a three-part series about my family’s experience with a potential child predator. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to start with Part 1: It’s Someone You Know. The concluding chapter is Part 3: Lessons Learned.

It must have been around the time that our children were born, around the year 2000 or so. We were attending church in Brecksville, the church in which we had been married a few years before. We wanted to take a more active role in youth fellowship. Some of the teens in the church had asked us to be advisers for the youth group, and we wanted to be more active in the Sunday School and Vacation Bible School programs.

At the time, there was a renewed emphasis on child abuse prevention, and to be involved with youth in the church in any kind of official capacity, we were required to attend a child abuse prevention training program. We weren’t happy about it. I’m a certified teacher. I work with kids all the time. This was just more red tape — more bureaucracy — just like background checks and TB tests and all the other hoops you have to jump through to do good things for kids these days. But we went.

4557822128_5d9ba71628[1]The program talked about child predators. We learned about warning signs. Watch out for adults who always seem to be around kids. Look for people who are involved in children’s programs, but not necessarily in similar adult programs. Pay attention to seemingly innocent physical contact. Child predators will frequently share “secrets” with children, and try to build a confidence and rapport from them that is separate from their parents. When grooming a potential victim, a child predator will frequently buy gifts and do favors for a child. While it’s possible that a predator may use innuendo and make sexual references, these are often extremely vague so they can be explained away easily. Predators often build a trust relationship with children, and work to contrive situations where they can be alone with kids.

We went to the training. We watched the videos. We had the uncomfortable conversations. We learned to spot potential predators. More than anything, I think we learned how to avoid having our innocent actions be misinterpreted as predatory. We completed the course and went on with our lives. We never saw anything out of the ordinary when working with kids at church. At times, we had to remind others of the policies that were in place to protect kids. There have to be two non-related adults in the room, for example. Kids don’t ride alone in a chaperone’s car. Sometimes, in the practicality of doing volunteer work, these are difficult rules to follow. But they’re important ones.

A decade later, these red flags started popping up. Where did this gift come from? Why is our neighbor outside every time our kids are in the yard? What do you mean you were playing “hide and seek” or “tag” during your art lesson? Individually, everything was innocent. But collectively, they didn’t add up.

How convenient it is that our neighbor likes geology as much as our children, and is willing to take them to Geo-Junior activities? It is a bit strange that he’s not in the adult lapidary club, though, isn’t it? Why does he only go to the kids’ events?

It’s very generous of him to offer painting lessons to our daughter. And yet, he won’t accept any kind of remuneration. He has two students, both of whom are teenage girls. That’s suspicious, but may also just be a coincidence. He will only teach them one at a time — never together. Also suspicious, but also explained away. He wants to be able to focus on each of them individually. And he’s retired. He has plenty of time for both of them.

He’s married to his second wife. He has children and grandchildren, but we don’t know anything about them. Why doesn’t he ever see them or talk about them? Where was he before he was here? He lived in Ohio, then moved to New Mexico, and then moved back. Why? He lived in the northwest. He lived in California. How does this all add up? What is the timeline? Why did he move around so much? I’m sure there are perfectly reasonable explanations, but he never seemed willing to talk about his past.

Online, he becomes a ‘friend.” My daughters have the blessing and curse that their parents are technological omnivores. For many children their age, the Internet is a place to go to avoid the watchful eye of the parents. But my kids had web sites before they were born. Their parents met online a decade before most people knew that the Internet existed. We are bloggers and Googlers and Facebookers and Twitterers. We’re hip enough to the online world to not describe ourselves as “hip.” So the children are involved online only to the extent necessary to participate in the cultural experience that defines their generation. It’s not a place for them to escape their parents.

Still, the neighbor was there. He would see the photos that were posted, and was quick to comment every time. He would chat whenever he noticed that the girls were online, even if he knew they were supposed to be doing other things. He would send emails, and they would reply. Frequently, these emails referred to face-to-face activities without much context. It was another way of building that personal, secret relationship. We share a common experience. We have a special bond.

The technology rules that we have in our house are very simple. The children are not permitted to sign up for any online services without parental approval. They are not creating accounts on any services without permission. When they do sign up for an account, their username and password are registered with Mom and Dad. These are kept in a safe place — an encrypted volume that only the parents have access to. Initially, this was to help them when they forgot their usernames and passwords. But it also helps us keep an eye on the breadth of their online presence.

In the online world, there is no pretense of anonymity. You will not be anonymous in anything you do on the Internet. This is true for everyone, even if they don’t believe it. In our house, it’s explicitly true. There’s also no sharing of accounts or passwords, and no pretending to be someone else on the Internet.

Email and chats are logged. That’s an easy one. In Gmail, chats are automatically archived unless you turn it off. Email forwarding can easily be set up as well. You can forward all incoming or outgoing email to a parent’s account. We may or may not be doing one or both of those things in our house. While the child can easily turn these off, doing so would immediately be noticed, because Mom would stop getting copies of the emails.

We don’t do these things to spy on our children. We don’t spy on our children. We don’t read everything they do online. We don’t log in to their accounts very often. But if there’s a question about what’s going on, we’re also not completely in the dark. When we started having suspicions about what was happening with the neighbor, we could look at the communication to see what was going on, without alarming the children. Then, when action needed to be taken, we included them.

I do want to emphasize here that the online communication was a very small part of a much larger personal relationship. There is an often-propagated perception that online predators are out there harvesting kids from the Internet. Maybe that’s true. But it’s a much smaller problem — an order of magnitude smaller, at least– than the problem of children being abused by people they know. That isn’t an Internet problem. Safety online is important, but it’s not nearly as important as safety in the physical world.

Our case was an extremely fortunate one. I do not believe that either of my children was a victim of a sexual predator. But I do believe that they were being groomed by a neighbor over the course of three years, and that they would have become victims if we had not stepped in. As their parents, we happened to have the training to spot a potential threat, and even so we were slow to react and may have unnecessarily put our children in danger. I am happy that the threat was identified, that we took action out of caution, and that our decision to end the relationship turned out to be the right one. But it was a very difficult journey.

Photo source: Spcbrass on flicker.

Part 1: It’s Someone You Know

This is the first part of a three part series chronicling my family’s experience with a potential child predator. Parts two and three will be posted within the next few days.

It was late on a Friday afternoon in February, and I was packing. We were set to leave on a vacation to Disney World the following morning, and there was still a lot to be done. I was surprised to hear the doorbell, and glanced out the upstairs window. There were two cars in the driveway. Two men were standing in the drive. Four more were on the front porch.

The detective showed me his badge. “Is there somewhere we can talk?” I put on some shoes and joined them on the porch. “We have reason to believe your daughter may have been a victim of a sexual predator.” I realized the shaking may not have been entirely due to standing out in the cold without a coat.

135276_b8940d5c3a[1]It took a couple hours, but we finally determined that it was very unlikely that either daughter was actually a victim. Still, they seemed to know quite a lot about our neighbor, and we tried to help them fill in some of the gaps.

He lives in the house behind us. His property is higher than ours, and from his house and second-floor deck, he has a great view of the back of our house and our entire yard. He and his wife moved in during the summer of 2009, and we finally got around to introducing ourselves on Halloween as the kids were trick-or-treating. He’s retired, in his mid 70’s. He and his wife recently moved back to Ohio from New Mexico. He’s an amateur painter. He loves rocks and geology.

He had a lot in common with the kids. Our older daughter loved painting, and had taken a few art classes in the area. Both girls were interested in rocks, and had recently joined the local Geo-Juniors lapidary club. Neither my wife nor I shared this passion, but our neighbor was just as excited about looking for fossils and cracking geodes as the kids were.

It wasn’t long before we discussed painting classes. He had previously taught painting, but didn’t have any students at the moment. He had a studio in his basement, and was more than willing to share his passion with a budding young artist. They started simply, and within a few months my daughter was producing astounding artwork. At age eleven, she was learning the fundamentals of color, texture, lighting, and composition. She soon outgrew acrylics and moved on to oils.

We dropped in on her classes occasionally, always unannounced. Usually, they were working. Sometimes they would be playing or doing other things. We talked about safety with our daughter. She would let us know if he ever made her feel uncomfortable. We made sure that his wife was always home whenever there was a painting lesson.

Because he had much more of an interest in rocks than we did, he would often accompany the girls to lapidary club meetings and gem shows. We were only too happy to let him share his interest with the kids. He soon became a fixture at club meetings and took an active role working with the children.

Sometimes, he would buy them gifts. Usually, they were small things. Maybe a couple rocks from the gem show, or a hot dog from the concession stand. He bought most of the painting supplies, and wouldn’t accept reimbursement for them. He’d give the girls candy and other treats. Christmas and birthdays would not pass without a gift.

By the summer of 2011, he was a regular fixture in the girls’ lives. Whenever they went in the back yard, he would be around. They’d share stories with him and he would show them his garden and let them play with his cats and dog. The paintings were getting better. When the older daughter enrolled in a virtual school, he offered to help out with her art classes. He took the lead on working through the curriculum and completing the projects with her.

Still, something wasn’t quite right. The kids were getting very close, and our unannounced visits during her lessons were less welcome. The time off task was becoming more frequent, and we would hear stories of tickling and roughhousing that didn’t seem appropriate for painting lessons.

We tightened the reins. We moved the art classes to our house instead of his, a move he wasn’t at all happy with. We made sure a parent was always home whenever he was over. We still gave them some privacy — they worked in the basement — but there was always someone upstairs. Meanwhile, the involvement in the lapidary club continued.

In the winter of 2012, he held an exhibition at a local library, and invited his two students to show their work as well. Each girl showed a handful of paintings, and we held a reception for visitors when the show opened. He also encouraged them to enter competitions and helped them select and display their best work.

As the girls got older, they started using online media more and more. In our house, our children’s use of social media is monitored. We see copies of incoming email. Chat sessions are logged. This data would become very useful later.

By the fall of 2012, the online communication had become excessive, and we stepped in. There were chats with the 13-year-old as early as 6:00 in the morning, and after 10:00 at night. Some of these messages contained veiled innuendo, most of which went over her head. There were emails and chat messages when she should have been doing schoolwork. In one case, he encouraged her to lie to her mother about what she was doing online.

That’s when it stopped. We confronted him in a grown-ups-only meeting in October of 2012. We shared the chat and email transcripts with him. He feigned ignorance. He was just fooling around. He didn’t mean anything by it. We were taking things out of context.

We ended the art lessons. The children were not to visit his house. They could wave across the yard, but should not visit with him unless a parent was present. He continued to attend the lapidary club meetings. The little gifts continued, often left on our front porch.

Meanwhile, we started doing some research. Unfortunately, he has a very common name. A man with his same name and birthday was a registered sex offender in California, but was not registered in Ohio. Our neighbor was previously divorced, and was estranged from his adult children. He talked often of his time in the Army in the late ‘50’s, and of his travels in Europe, but rarely mentioned anything that he did in the fifty years between his Army service and the time we met him. His Facebook timeline didn’t include any of these details either. He had lived in at least four states, so we knew he had moved around a fair bit. But that was all we know.

I consulted a police officer at work, and a friend who works with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Both advised me to keep my children away from him. We didn’t take it any further than that. There wasn’t any proof that he had actually done anything wrong. But as we told him, we would rather be wrong and have him upset with us than be wrong and put our children in danger. We would err on the side of protecting our kids, and cut off ties to him out of an abundance of caution.

That was four months before the visit from the detectives.

A week after our return from vacation, we received a lengthy email from our neighbor. He explained that he had been caught in an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force operation that had occurred a year prior, and that his computer had been confiscated the previous summer. The detective had confronted him with the chat transcripts that we provided, and he wanted us to know that he knew that we knew about the investigation. He tried to explain his actions and asked for our forgiveness. We shared his email with the detective.

After nearly three more months of waiting, charges were finally filed in May. One of the conditions of his bond was that he have no contact with any underage persons without their parents present. This was an added condition due to his proximity to our children. My wife had several conversations with the prosecutor’s office before he finally pleaded guilty to two felony counts of child pornography. We were asked by the prosecutor’s office to attend the sentencing.

On August 29, 2013, he was sentenced to four years in prison for the second degree felony offense, and 11 months in prison for the 5th degree felony. These sentences were not suspended, and will be consecutive. He will be eligible for judicial release, however. Following release, he must have post-release community control for five years. As a Tier 2 sex offender, he is also required to register every 180 days for the next five years, and he is not allowed to live in a restricted zone. Since he currently lives within 1000 feet of a school, he will need to move. He must also pay the costs of the prosecution.

So for us, at least, there’s some closure. It’s pretty clear that he won’t be involved in our lives or our children’s lives from now on.  But there’s more to say about this. You can continue on to Part 2: Warning Signs and Part 3: Lessons Learned.

Photo source: Myblackrainbow on Twitter.