“A few years back I learned a family member was arrested for possession of child pornography. It terrified me. If I could miss this about someone in my inner circle, what else was I missing?
I listened to an episode of the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast titled Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse featuring Feather Berkower, LCSW with Parenting Safe Children. I learned that one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach eighteen. I learned predators groom parents to gain their trust before turning their attention to the child. When they groom the child, they often do so right under a parent’s nose to give the impression of innocence (like ‘I can’t possibly be doing something wrong if I’m doing it right in front of you!’).
It hit me that child abusers aren’t strangers luring kids into white vans, they are known adults playing games kids like, giving kids things they value, working their way up from affection to things far more nefarious. The comfort of thinking this could never happen to me disappeared.
Then last summer, my husband and I took our kids on a vacation with six of my friends and their families—31 people in one house for an entire week. As soon as we arrived, a girlfriend pulled me aside to report the unsettling news that another friend’s adult step-son was there and had slept in the kids’ bunkroom with some of the little boys the night before.
I had met the step-son only once. He seemed like a nice enough guy even though he was newly sober, unemployed, and living at home. I had no real reason to distrust him. Still, something didn’t feel right about a 26-year-old man sleeping in a bunkbed with little kids.
My friend and I considered our options. We didn’t want to offend or be perceived as unfairly accusatory. We settled on an excuse about not having enough space for another kid who would be arriving a couple days later. We were told sleeping in the bunkroom with the kids wasn’t the step-son’s idea; that he had been put there because there were no other free beds. Ultimately, everyone agreed he’d sleep on the sofa. The bunkroom dilemma had been resolved but my sense of unease remained.
A little later that morning, I found my six-year-old daughter on the sofa. She was engrossed in her tablet, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. I, however, was not oblivious to the fact that the step-son had taken up residence so close to her that their shoulders were touching. I was not oblivious to this grown adult inserting himself into her little-kid-game-playing. Alarm bells were ringing.
‘Honey, come with mummy so you can take a shower,’ I said, trying to mask the suspicion in my counterfeit plea. I had no real reason to distrust him. Then he purred, ‘You smell good to me.’ I felt sick. My mind started doing this mental ping pong—PING: one in three girls, PONG: I have no real reason to distrust him; PING: pedophiles groom victims by connecting over stuff they like, PONG: he’s probably just being nice; PING: trust your instincts, PONG: your instincts are probably off because of the family thing.
I had no idea what was real and what was happening in my terrified imagination. Erring on the side of caution, I persuaded my daughter to go swimming just to get her away from the step-son. Two minutes later, he appeared next to her in the deep end. When I summoned her to the shallow end, the creep tailed her. PING: something is not right! PONG: you’re just being paranoid; PING: he’s showing way too much interest in a six-year-old. PONG: get your act together, you anxious freak.
After finding out about my family member, I swore I’d never let a predator near my kids. But how do you keep that promise if you don’t know who the predators are? What was I supposed to say? And to whom? ‘Hey friend, your step-son is being too nice to my daughter?’ ‘Step-sons’s father, I have no proof whatsoever, and I’m probably not credible given the shock of discovering my relative is a pedophile, but I have this really twisted idea that your son might be one too?’ Doing anything of the sort would have blown up our vacation, and most likely our friendships. I had no proof. I felt paralyzed.
I decided to run my observations past a few of the other moms in the house—a check to see if I was overreacting. What I got instead was a report that the step-son had been overheard declining to move out of the kids’ bunkroom the previous night when offered an unoccupied queen bed, and that he’d been seen making a pinky promise with my little girl. I wouldn’t learn until later that he was attempting to lure my 6-year-old into online gaming that he said would be ‘our little secret.’
This is when I should have spoken up. But while I sat in indecision, one of the husbands took it upon himself to warn the step-son’s father that I had been speculating about his kid’s inappropriate behavior around my daughter. This was all it took for the father to pack up his family in a fit of rage, scream at me for ‘gossiping to all my friends about his son being a pedophile,’ and storm out on our reunion. The truth is, my self-doubt and fear of hurting people’s feelings and ruining everyone’s vacation prevented me from using the word pedophile. From doing anything. Looking back, I did have reason to distrust the step-son, but I was a coward. I would like to think that eventually I would have been brave and spoken up, but I can’t be 100% certain.
What I’ve learned since that trip is that perpetrators count on parents being afraid of exactly what I was: we will be so worried about hurting feelings, offending people, or being seen as wrongfully accusing someone, that we will ignore our instincts and shy away from difficult conversations. That we will be unwilling to risk the fall out. That we will hide under the illusion of it could never happen to me. Only one in three says otherwise.
I still don’t know whether I was right about the step-son, and I probably never will. But what I do know is this: Next time, I will act. I will have the difficult conversation, take on the rage and condemnation, the lost friendship and the fall out, if it means sparing my child the agony of the alternative.”
From Feather: If you’re playing mental ping-pong or alarm bells are ringing about a concern that involves your child, don’t think twice about speaking up. Listen, act, and intervene. As Jill shared, there were ample signs of concern: A 26-year-old man sleeping in a bunkbed with young kids, pursuing a young child on the couch and following her to the pool, a non-relative, adult man telling a child she smells good, and asking for secrets. Self-doubt and fear of hurting someone’s feelings can prevent parents from protecting children and that’s exactly what offenders count on. I support parents in speaking up every time you hear an alarm bell, small and big.
Feather Berkower, MSW, is Founder of Parenting Safe Children and a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Educator & Author