Big Bad Wolf: Protecting Kids from Sexual Abuse

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Removing the cloak of invisibility from modern-day "wolves" can help parents protect their children from sexual abuse.

Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” Moral from Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault, 1697.


Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood was a cautionary story.  Even with the removal of sexual overtones in modern versions of the story, Little Red Riding Hood still conveys a similar, if perhaps understated, warning. In contemporary versions of the story “wolves” become equated with strangers, implicating that children should be wary of anyone and everyone they don’t know.

It is not surprising that fear of strangers is routinely indoctrinated in children by well-meaning parents and teachers. This is understandable as in today’s world where “stranger wolves” may be sexual predators, pedophiles or kidnappers.  In fact, “stranger danger” curriculum is often taught in many elementary schools.

Who are the “Wolves”?

Most people assume that “wolves” are always strangers. However, much more sinister wolves may be present. These wolves wear the sheep clothing of “family member” or “family friend. According to current data compiled by the United States Department of Human Services, more than 90% of all sexual predator victims are attacked by someone they know. Lisa Dupree, a veteran social worker at the Our Kids Center in Nashville explained that strangers are not the problem. “Only 2.5% of sexual assaults on children are made by strangers.”  She explained. Perhaps teaching children to fear strangers may not be the best way to protect them from sexual predators.

In Tennessee, The Our Kids Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to help children and families affected by child sexual abuse. The Our Kids Center provides expert medical evaluations, crisis counseling, conduct research and promotes community awareness of the problem.  The main Our Kids Center is located in Nashville. Four other satellite clinics in Clarksville, Cookeville, Lawrenceburg and Manchester serve families in middle Tennessee.

In any case, sexual abuse of children is an unsavory subject. The tendency to place the blame on strangers is a natural response. Kenneth Lanning is a former supervisory special agent for the FBI and the author of Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis for Professionals Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children. Lanning suggests that most people are more comfortable blaming holding a “stranger” responsible rather than a clergy member, next-door neighbor, law-enforcement officer, pediatrician, teacher, coach or volunteer.

Who are the Victims?

So exactly what constitutes sexual abuse and how many children are affected?  Sexual abuse of children encompasses assault, exploitation and abduction. There are varying estimates of how many children experience sexual abuse. The 2001 National Crime Victimization Survey determined the rate to be as low as 1.9 per 1,000 children between the ages of 12-17. Other surveys report much higher figures. The National Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrown Away Children (NISMART-2) estimated an annual rate of 4.6 per 1,000 children. In 2002 a telephone survey estimated a sexual assault rate nearly 7 times that of the NISMART-2.

There are some inherent problems in correctly estimating the numbers of victims.

Frequently, cases of sexual abuse are not reported. Many victims are ashamed to report the crime. Sometimes the circumstances of the crime may not fit the law enforcement definition of sexual assault. For example, when a 12 year old is assaulted by a 15 year old, the event may not be reported as sexual abuse if, for example, the law enforcement agency regards it as normal rites-of-passage activity rather than a sexual assault.  Also, events reported after the fact are seldom reflected statistically in the statistics. Additionally, all sources agree that a high rate sexual assault cases are never reported to police.

Hollie Strand, is a nationally recognized professional forensic analyst and counselor who has conducted extensive research on the behavior of sex offenders. Strand explains that parents often assume that because someone is “good with kids” or appears to love their kids, the child(ren) will be safe. “Most parents are devastated to find out someone they loved and/or trusted with their child has, in fact, abused their child.”

Lisa Dupree from the Our Kids Center agrees. Dupree pointed out that most sex offender laws such as the sex offender registry are not as effective as many people are led to believe. “These laws do precious little to protect everyone.” She said, because they target strangers and assume that strangers are the main perpetrators. This is simply not so.”

In Strand’s experience many child sexual abuse cases could have been avoided if parents had been savvy to information about recognizing potential danger. Thinking of sex offenders as wolves is a good idea, but equating them with strangers is not. Unfortunately, the inability to recognize sex offender “wolves” among familiar seemingly respectable people makes them especially dangerous.

To educate parents and professionals about protecting children against sex offenders, Like Charles Perrault, Hollie Strand explains that not all “wolves” are alike and neither are all sex offenders.

The ability to distinguish sex offenders according to specific characteristics is critical to crime prevention. Armed with knowledge, law enforcement officials are better able to catch and sentence criminals. It helps counselors provide appropriate treatment options and it helps parents and educators do a better job of preparing children and teenagers to recognize danger.

Characteristics of Sex Offenders

Although sex offenders may have diverse characteristics, it may be helpful to classify them as either preferential or situational according to the landmark study of sex offenders by Kenneth Lanning.

Preferential sex offenders are those who appear to prefer sex with children rather than with peer-appropriate partners. Lanning explains that preferential sex offenders seduce children much in the same way that adults seduce one another. They are more likely to commit multiple offenses. Situational sex offenders are so named because they found themselves in a “situation” which they chose to act upon. Both preferential and situational sex offenders are dangerous, but they are different.

Preferential offenders are perhaps a little easier to recognize perhaps because they tend to exhibit predictable long-term behaviors. Typically these behaviors begin in early adolescence. Preferential offenders often collect theme pornography. They like souvenirs. They may have fantasies which they may act on to turn them into reality. They rationalize their behavior and have defined victim characteristics. In a study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2005 law enforcement officers who understand the profiles of sex offenders are more likely to make connections. Sex offenders want to talk and will do so much more willingly if they know the listener understands them

Preferential sex offenders may stalk their victims but seldom in a frightening “wolf” disguise.  They often use the internet to lure children. They are dangerous because they know where to find victims in the virtual world. And to naïve teenagers and children, just because you have not met someone in person does not mean he or she cannot be a “BFF” (Best Friend Forever). Many offenders have been known to send recognizable photographs of themselves.

Preferential offenders are often good liars.  And because they are willing to commit time and money to fulfill their sexual needs, they often become experts at the use of technology to lure victims. Parents should understand that preferential offenders know what they are doing. Law enforcement officials may use this information to conduct interviews and determine investigative and prosecution strategies

Situational offenders represent a very diverse group. The primary difference is that situational offenders may not necessarily prefer children. However, without intervention some situational sex offenders may eventually become preferential offenders.

Some situational offenders are said to be “regressed”, meaning they have low self-esteem and poor coping skills. Regressed sex offenders may fear rejection from peer-appropriate partners. Thus, they may turn to children as a sexual substitute.  These offenders may even molest their own children. They coerce a child into having sex and often threaten them to keep silent.

Another term used to describe situational sex offenders is “inadequate”. These offenders include those who may suffer from personality disorders, mental retardation, or mental health issues. They may be described as social misfits. Those situational offenders described as “inadequate” may become involved with children sexually sometimes accidentally or through curiosity or from behavior learned informally. For these individuals, children provide nonthreatening opportunities to explore sexuality. Such sexual contact is usually the result of normal impulses rather than premeditated planning. Most “inadequate” sex offenders lack the social skills to coerce a child, but that does not mean they are not dangerous.  According to Lanning, low social capacity is the most significant risk factor in determining why a molester might abduct his victims.

Perhaps the most dangerous “wolves” of all are those situational sex offenders labeled “morally indiscriminate”.  They are most dangerous because they are least treatable and least predictable. Labeled as psychopaths by mental health professionals, these situational sex offenders act without conscience. They are impulsive. They abuse family members, friends and co-workers. They lie, cheat and manipulate and molest children for no apparent reason. They victimize the vulnerable regardless of whether the victim is a stranger, acquaintance or a family member. “Morally indiscriminate” sex offenders will threaten, use trickery, bribery or any other means to coerce victims redundant

Practical Advice for Parents

So what can or should parents do to protect their children?  Hollie Strand offers this advice, “Beware of anyone who wants to be with your children more than you do.” In her presentations, Strand explains that preferential offenders are especially aware of what they are doing and they frequent places where they will find children. “When I worked in the prison system I knew if I ever had children, they would never be allowed to go to slumber parties.  This was because sex offenders I worked with often talked about the children they molested while these children stayed overnight at their home.”

The best defense for parents, according to Lisa Dupree is effective communication.  Parents should make it easy for children to talk to them. Parents need to emphasize that the child will not be blamed even if he or she tells on dear Uncle Charlie. Lisa Dupree cautions parents that damage comes not from a sexual abuse incident but from not being believed or made to feel guilty. “Parents need to manage their emotions.” She said. Otherwise, children may experience unnecessary guilt that will prevent them from telling their parents or a trusted adult about the abuse.

The wolf metaphor in Little Red Riding Hood is indeed relevant today. Parents must understand that the “wolves” most dangerous today are the “familiar” rather than the “gentle” wolves in Perrault’s lengthy moral.  That is not to say that parents should not continue to teach children to be wary of strangers. What parents need to understand is that wolves come in all varieties and so do sex offenders.  Removing the cloak of invisibility depends on awareness and knowledge.

Things You Can Teach Your Children

  1. Encourage your child to communicate with you.
  2. Tell your child that it is not OK for anyone to touch their private parts.
  3. Tell them it is always OK for them to talk to you.
  4. Remain calm when you talking with your child about sexual perpetrators.
  5. Tell your child that it is not their fault or that they are not being disloyal by talking to you.
  6. Avoid placing responsibility on the child



How Parents Can Recognize a “Wolf”

  1. Be wary of anyone who wants to be with your children more than you do.
  2. Be wary of people who attempt to “isolate” kids.
  3. Become acquainted with your child’s friends.
  4. Monitor your child’s social media sites.
  5. Build communication with your child
  6. Encourage your child to trust you.





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