Child molesters are drawn to youth-serving organizations such as schools, churches, camps, sports teams, and after-school programs. Each time we read a news story about a child molester who infiltrated a youth-serving organization, we are naturally revulsed and wonder why this person wasn’t detected earlier and stopped.
In this series, I will explain how youth-serving organizations fail to recognize and act on critical red flags associated with child molesters. But besides the red flags a molester may signal to the organization, there are also red flags the organization signals to the molester. In this series, I will explain how both work.
It may shock you to consider how many U.S. adults could be sexually interested in children. A 2013 study, found that “among men, 6% indicated some likelihood of having sex with a child if they were guaranteed they would not be caught or punished, as did 2% of women” and further, the report finds that “overall, nearly 10% of males and 4% of females reported some likelihood of having sex with children or viewing child pornography.”
It is also important to understand that although the threat of “stranger danger” to children is real, it should not be the organization’s highest priority, when it comes to sexual abuse prevention. Rather, the organization faces a much more likely threat from its own staff or from other children being served by the organization. The Darkness to Light Foundation reports that, “about 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser…only 10% of sexually abused children are abused by a stranger.” The foundation also reports that “about 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by people the family trusts.”
How Child Molesters Function within Organizations
Child molesters typically use a process of deception and coercion, known as “grooming,” to set the stage for exploiting their victims through a very predictable strategy:
- Gain access to children by being part of the organization and identify a child with unmet needs. If the organization does not prohibit it, the child molester will begin to normalize touching, through “innocent” hugs, pats, tickling, lap sitting, wrestling and roughhousing, then
- Gain privacy with the child, if not within, then outside of the organization’s programs and intensify the favoritism, provide gifts or special privileges, share personal information and increase the frequency and sexual nature of touching, then
- Gain emotional control over the child in order to draw them into increasingly more intense sexual acts, increase the child’s emotional dependency on the child molester and ensure that the child will keep the secret through coercion or threats of harm.
However, to get to the stage of grooming the child, the child molester must first groom the organization by becoming an employee or volunteer. Once on the inside, he or she demonstrates they are a valued instructor, coach, staff or volunteer; someone who is fully reliable and relates exceptionally well to children.
Along with grooming the organization, the child molester will often find it necessary to groom the potential victim’s family. This often involves becoming a family friend, building the parent’s complete trust in him or her and finding out ways to help out the parent(s), such as picking up and dropping off their child, providing extra lessons or taking them on brief, even overnight, excursions.
In short, child molesters continue to succeed, year after year, within organizations, due to (a) the complacency of the organizations and parents, (b) the absence of enforced rules, both in the organization and family, (c) the likeability of the child molesters and (d) the seemingly harmlessness of those grooming behaviors that adults may actually observe.
What Youth-Serving Organizations Can Do
To address this persistent threat, all stakeholders—board members, staff and volunteers, parents, and the children—must work together. Although the information provided (training, education, awareness) will vary with the stakeholder, it is important for everyone to understand that:
1. Seemingly “nice people” can harm children.
2. The behavior patterns of child molesters are predictable.
3. Everyone has a responsibility to interrupt rule breaking or questionable behaviors.
4. Everyone has a responsibility to share their concerns with the appropriate authority.
In this series of articles, I will offer organizational strategies in four distinct areas: (1) screening and selection of staff and volunteers, (2) training, educating and elevating the awareness of all stakeholders, (3) supervision and monitoring strategies and (4) enforcement strategies. Within each of the four areas, there are red flags that a “problematic person” may signal, which does not necessarily mean that person is a child molester, but it does provide critical information to the organization. Also, within each of those four areas, I will identify the red flags that the organization signals to the child molester, essentially telling him or her, “You may proceed further with little risk of being caught.”
Be Concerned, but Not Panicked
The problem of child molesters infiltrating youth-serving organizations is a complex and persistent threat that will never go away. Youth-serving organizations face an enemy who looks and acts like the ideal employee or volunteer but who will patiently plan and wait for the opportunity to exploit a child seeking adult attention.
However, over the past two decades, national-level youth-serving organizations, child protection advocates, researchers and practitioners have worked diligently to create, apply and improve effective, child sexual abuse prevention strategies. The results of these efforts were first clearly seen in a 2016 study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, which concluded that “abuse in youth-serving organizations was a relatively rare form of abuse, dwarfed by family members and other adults.”
What this tells us is that the threat has been contained, but, like the potential for crime, cannot be eliminated. However, if organizations fail to see the red flags or fail to stop signaling their own red flags for child molesters, the threat is guaranteed to surface.