Jennifer Ginsberg: Yesterday, Tyler Perry discussed his childhood sexual abuse on "Oprah." How can we protect our own kids? Erin Runnion, founder of the Joyful Child Foundation, shares her suggestions for identifying "red-flag" behavior in people who may be looking to victimize your child.
According to Ms. Runnion, 90 percent of child abuse occurs at the hands of someone the victim's parents know and trust. She quotes the U.S. Department of Justice
statistic that 64 percent of convicted child predators had a legitimate reason to be in contact with kids.
In other words, these are people who work in schools and camps, who volunteer to work with children in church and who coach sports. Child predators are adults who "seek out opportunities to be alone with children," says Ms. Runnion. They work hard to gain your trust as a parent. They come across as helpful -- perhaps overly so -- and never ask for anything in return. They make themselves a friend, someone for you to count on, and they often seek out single mothers (who are more likely to be stressed and needy).
Child sexual predators appear to adore children and will buy them presents and even take them to fun places. Their goal is to gain trust -- that of both the parent and the child. They go though life acting as if they are kind and reliable, all the while crossing boundaries with the child in a methodical fashion. According to Ms. Runnion's research, over 90 percent of these predators reportedly attend church regularly and become part of a trusted community. In her opinion, this excessively helpful and seemingly pious behavior all becomes part of the twisted rationalization predators use when they abuse children.
When looking for specific traits that these men possess (and 98 percent of child sexual predators are men), Ms. Runnion describes the "Pied Piper" -- the man who is elusive to other adults and plays at the child's level.
"In a situation where there are adults and children present -- like a party or school event -- most adults want to hang out with other adults while the children play," notes Ms. Runnion. "A red-flag behavior would be when you notice a person who is only interacting with the children, to the exclusion of other adults." What's so confusing about these men is that they seem to have a knack with children, and the kids love playing with them. However, this "fun" behavior is exhibited to ease the boundaries with the child and gain the trust of the parent.
Ms. Runnion says that the most powerful thing you can do as a parent is be observant. "This is not about accusing someone of being a pervert," she says. "It's about protecting your child. If you notice someone ignoring you and only talking to your child, or trying to make plans with your child directly, say something like, 'In our family, we have a rule that the adults make the plans. Please ask me the questions.' If the person has good intentions, they will understand. If the person is a child predator, they will get the hell away from you and your child."
Again, these men tend to seek out the kids of vulnerable women. By exhibiting strength and enforcing healthy boundaries, you -- and your child -- will not be deemed easy targets. According to Ms. Runnion, it is also imperative to check in with your child every day. "Ask, 'What was the best part of your day? What was the worst part of your day?' and listen to their answers," she says. "Remind them every day that their safety is the most important thing to you."