HUNTINGBURG — In the majority of sexual assault cases committed against children, the child and child’s family know the perpetrator.
And with the internet and social media, child grooming and sexual assault are happening at a much faster pace.
“These guys are master manipulators. And they are hunters,” said Darrel Turner of Turner Forensic Psychology. “And they know what makes a child vulnerable.”
Turner is a clinical psychologist in Louisiana. The majority of his work is forensic work, particularly in the area of adults who sexually offend against children.
Turner held two public sessions Wednesday about grooming behaviors of child molesters and the risks posed to children by online predators. Along with sharing statistics and information, Turner played part of a video of a victim describing how he was groomed by a predator. He also played videos talking to two predators: one who talked about the grooming process and another who said he wasn’t a predator, although he is a registered sex offender.
Ninety-three percent of offenders are known by the victim and victim’s family, Turner said, citing statistics compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Strangers account for about 7% of assaults against children.
Predators tend to groom the children before assaulting them. Grooming is a process by which offenders do certain behaviors and act to gain access to victims and to prevent discovery of the abuse.
“We’re talking about specific behaviors that a child molester will engage in for the purposes of gaining access to a victim, keeping access to a victim, meeting a child for sexual purposes, and then preventing that child from disclosing,” Turner said. “A child’s willingness to disclose the abuse and talk about the abuse is directly impacted by the grooming process that child went through.”
The offender will gain the trust of the family and victim, and then have alone time with the victim.
“They want to take that victim away from the comfort of the people they’re used to being around,” Turner said. “They need to convince that intended victim that sex is OK between a child and an adult, and that an adult talking to a child about sex is a normal thing. And not only is it normal, but it’s enjoyable and a good thing. It’s easier for them to do that, the more a child is separated from their family and from the people that they know and love, and their social support system.”
With the growth of the internet and social media, that grooming happens a little differently, and much faster than in the past.
“Because of social media and the internet, we essentially have predators in our homes, in a virtual sense,” Turner said. “And that’s something that’s never ever happened before. Through the internet and through social media, there is direct interaction between predators, pedophiles, child molesters, and our children. And it occurs in our home in the privacy of our child’s own room.”
In this setting, predators will often find victims who seem to not be as close to their family, who seems to be ostracized or who have a dark profile online.
“I had an offender talk to me about how he would scroll through Facebook profiles and he could instantly tell which child he’s looking at, based on their Facebook profile, would be an easier victim. Simply by what they have on their Facebook profile,” Turner said. “They tend to target the more troubled children, the ones with behavioral problems. There’s two reasons for that. They will be an easy victim, and it is less likely that they will be believed if they ever do tell of the assault.”
Communication with children, them being aware of their surroundings and what they do online, and knowing the signs of predator behaviors is important, because the effect of an assault on a victim lasts forever.
“When a child is victimized,” Turner said, “that child is affected emotionally and psychologically for the rest of their life.”
Turner offered a suggestion for parents wanting to protect their children.
“Honest communication,” he said. “You can explain to your children that this is something that can happen and that you want to talk to them about it so that they are aware.”
He advised parents to be aware of any possible boundary crossings between children and the adults they interact with.
“As parents we need to feel comfortable and we need to feel OK with taking action when we think something is not right. We feel that something is not right for a reason,” Turner said. “I’d rather be overprotective, than under protective and miss something.”
Both sessions were sponsored by the Southwestern Indiana Child Advocacy Center Coalition, Crisis Connection, Dubois County Court-Appointed Special Advocates and the Dubois County Community Foundation.