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Editor’s Note: Due to the sensitive nature of child abuse cases and the restrictions of this author’s job in law enforcement, his article has been published under a pseudonym. All incidents mentioned in this article have been left anonymous to protect the privacy of the victims. If child abuse has occurred to someone you know, call the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or refer to this list of resources from Rainn.org.
First off, I’d like to warn you that this article may be hard to read; names have been changed, sentences redacted, but these are not fictional “stories.” What you are about to read comes from the investigations in one of the largest cities in the country and the lessons I’ve learned about the physical and sexual abuse of children. This piece will focus mainly on the sexual abuse of children, though I will make a point or two on the physical abuse that often comes along with it.
I recently read an article from the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC) talking about common myths of child abuse — you can read it here. This was by far one of the better quick looks at the topic. One thing was missing for me: It didn’t hit on the corresponding facts that parents need to know. So, I’ve thought of some lessons every parent should know. These may not have statistics attached to them, but they’re based on firsthand experience. My ears will never be able to unhear what these kids have said, my eyes will never be able to unsee the atrocities of child sex abuse material (CSAM), and I will never look at a supposedly innocent “family friend” the same.
The first point I want to hit on is about the perpetrators of child abuse. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the trench coat-wearing stranger at the store you need to worry about — it’s your father, your brother, or your husband and/or boyfriend. Out of my hundreds of cases investigated, a small fraction have truly unknown suspects. The usual culprits are the biological father, stepfather, or boyfriend in the home. Mothers, if you get anything out of this article let it be this: If your child — male or female — has an uneasy feeling about or is spending an unusual amount of time with your partner, dig deeper and keep an eye on them. That said, remember that women can be perpetrators too, as I’ll discuss later.
One thing I’d love to say is that biological fathers are never the ones to sexually abuse their children. Unfortunately, while they are perpetrators in only a small percentage of my cases, these are usually the most manipulative and long-lasting abuse cases (keep this in mind when I make my second point). Most of the time the stepfather or live-in boyfriend takes advantage of the trust and isolation of the victim. A case for this that comes to mind occurred between a stepfather and stepdaughter while the mother was away. After finally having groomed the stepdaughter to trust him, the stepfather got drunk and asked the stepdaughter to sexually pleasure him with a sex toy. Let’s take a break from that and go to my second point; I promise I’ll come back to it.
Above: While society has a tendency to depict males as the sole perpetrators of abuse, female perpetrators often go unreported.
For this second point, I’ll take it from the NCAC’s article. Contrary to popular belief, most children either delay their disclosure or never disclose their abuse at all. Most of the disclosures that I’ve had come from three catalysts:
Every single child I’ve spoken to who had a delayed disclosure said they didn’t come forward sooner because of not being believed. Every single child I’ve spoken to who had a purposeful disclosure said they didn’t think anyone would believe them.
Another portion of underreported or completely unreported crimes by victims is male-on-male sexual violence. One case in particular comes to mind, as I recently was informed of the perpetrator taking a plea deal. In short, a female victim came forward to report being sexually abused by a male family member. The female victim’s brother was brought in for a precautionary interview. During my interview with the mother, she stated during the entire ordeal of police involvement, the brother was adamant nothing occurred between him and the male suspect. Sadly, during my interview the male victim said he was scared and ashamed of what occurred, which is why he waited until his interview to disclose the fact that he was also abused by the suspect. Most of my male victim interviews had a common theme: shame. This stigma causes a high percentage of male-on-male crimes to not be reported.
Now, let’s tie the previous two points together with one of my cases. I spoke to a distraught mother who told me her 16-year-old daughter disclosed being sexually abused by her father. Just another case, I thought, but something felt off. I had the mom bring in her two other daughters for interviews. The interviews are called forensic interviews; in short, they allow the interviewee to provide a narrative instead of just short answers. It’s common for interviews to go an hour or so. The 16-year-old’s interview lasted two-and-a-half hours. She didn’t come forward for eight years and her disclosure was purposeful.
So, you may ask why she waited so long. Wouldn’t she want this to end? Trust me when I say this was the bravest 16-year-old I’ve met. She waited in hope that it would protect her younger siblings. The biological father told her if she endured his abuse, her sisters would be spared. She believed she was sacrificing herself for them, and only spoke to authorities after she found out that her father’s promise had been a lie. While writing this I received an update on the case; the father pled guilty to multiple charges as a plea deal and received multiple years in the Department of Corrections for his actions.
Above: Manipulation can take the form of threats or bribery.
This case hits both points above: The biological father was constantly alone with the daughters, as he was the only one with internet access for the children who were doing online school, and he manipulated the victim to believe if she did whatever he asked, her younger sisters would be spared. Due to the new information on the plea deal, I’d like to transition to a topic a bit earlier than planned — sexual abuse suspects.
You just read of a case where a male perpetrated multiple acts against female children; many wonder if females are ever suspects in these cases. The answer is a simple yes, but the reason statistics show a low number may surprise you. Let us examine two separate cases — I can’t disclose the full details of either, but what I can disclose still paints a grim picture. The first case is quite tragic. A stepmother sexually groomed and abused her juvenile stepson, got impregnated with his child (a girl), and the juvenile male left the household prior to the child’s birth. When was this reported? Multiple years later when the mother was arrested for placing her own daughter into the sex trade at only 8 years old; at the time of arrest, the daughter was 14. This case does not fit a societal norm — incest, whether perpetrated on a male or female, is still not harshly prosecuted in many courts.
Let’s now look at how societal norms may have failed another child. A 16-year-old male had a full sexual relationship with a 32-year-old female. This relationship included “sleepovers,” dates, and sexual intercourse. The pair were caught in the act and the female arrested. That is normally what I would call an “open-and-close case.” However, what did the courts do? They dismissed the case on the basis of “no likelihood of conviction.” That is legal jargon which implies the prosecution doesn’t feel they’d win the case if it went to trial.
Above: Spending an excessive amount of time together isn’t always innocent.
These cases draw attention to the societal norms of relationships. When you hear of a younger male dating or engaging in promiscuous acts with an older female, the general consensus is to “high-five” and congratulate the male for some sort of accomplishment. However, when the roles are reversed it’s usually described with words like “disgusting” and “manipulative.” Ask yourself, especially the male readers, what your initial thoughts were. Whether you like to admit it or not, I would assume many blindly fell into those societal norms of a large-age-gap female-to-male relationship being generally accepted.
Up to this point, I’ve laid out the pathway for real-life examples of child sexual abuse, but how do you know if your child is a victim? This is a question no parent ever wants to hear an affirmative answer to. I have been the one to give the news to multiple parents, and it’s truly heartbreaking. So, how do you know if your child has suffered any type of abuse? Ask them. It’s a simple answer for an extremely difficult task, one which must also be carefully and methodically asked. In the case that your child does say they have been abused, I caution parents who may assume the child is lying. Sadly, plenty of parents do.
Below, I will expand upon my top three “case killers” — factors that destroy a victim’s trust and willingness to report a crime — in different investigations.
Case Killer 1: Confronting the Accused
The most notoriously obvious thing a parent does when they suspect a child to be lying is take the child to the accused and utter the following words, “Go ahead, tell him/her what you told me.” The child, now in a worse position than before, will recant their story and be labeled a liar by the perpetrator. This occurs quite frequently after the perpetrator tells the victim “no one will believe you.” Of my cases where this occurred, the child always recanted, was victimized again, then a second disclosure came out accidentally or they told a mandated reporter (nurse, teacher, firefighter, cop, etc.). At this point it takes skill, compassion, and time to build trust for the interviewer to get a full disclosure from the victim.
Case Killer 2: Blaming the Victim
While similar to the first, this case killer comes at the cost of the trust between the victim and who they disclose the crime to. I’d like to say I’m a level-headed investigator; I do my best to remove my emotions and focus on facts and elements of the case. However, I know of one time when I couldn’t believe the words I heard from the wife of a suspect. She didn’t believe the victim, she believed her husband. She tried every excuse in the book to blame the victim for what occurred and why everything was a misunderstanding.
The comment that pushed me to disclose more of the case than I wanted to — I had evidence I hadn’t revealed to the suspect yet — was regarding the victim and her social media/outfit habits. The wife told me to look at how the victim dressed, acted on social media, and “flirted with everyone.” Could all of that which she brought up be labeled as attention-seeking behavior? Sure. However, I like to think of that as behavior similar to a defense attorney; I know their case is weak when I get personally attacked during trial. It’s at that point in the trial that I know the case against their client is a solid one. Attacking my work ethic, appearance, and integrity (something that’s always brought up) takes away from the lack of defensible evidence they have. In the end of that case, the suspect admitted to the acts. I’d go as far as to say the wife knew and was trying to protect him.
Case Killer 3: Forcing the Disclosure
Above: Allowing the victim to go at his or her own pace is critical when talking about abuse. Forcing a disclosure may cause even more trauma.
During interviews with victims, I ask some form of question about how the disclosure occurred. I wanted to know what prompted the conversation and why they decided to disclose the crime now — what was different about now? That question sometimes slowed the interview, as the victim would break down emotionally and explain how they were forced and emotionally pressured to the point of disclosing.
Some may think the parent did a good job, doing whatever was necessary to get the disclosure. Sure, the case may go forward, but psychologically the victim will have another traumatic experience added to the abuse they already suffered. My suggestion is don’t force the victim to talk. So much will be going on in their minds that being “forced” to talk with a cop is the last thing the victim wants to do (usually). What’s my suggestion if the victim isn’t ready to talk? Make the police report immediately — take the child to a safe place first if needed — and have the investigation started. Most departments have adopted the practice of having a victim advocacy center built into their child-related crime bureaus. If a victim advocacy center isn’t attached to the building or accessible, ask for the nearest one or one the department commonly works with. The victim advocates are a wealth of knowledge and resources, and they can assist the victim without further traumatizing or pressuring them.
Above: Although “stranger danger” is still something to be wary of, most suspects are well-known by the child and/or family.
I’ve gone over how children are victimized, and what to do if your child is a victim, but what about preventing these crimes before they happen? Aside from investigations, I try to stay up to date on technology, especially cellular technology. This has helped my investigations not only in finding key elements of crimes, but also helping inform parents of what their kids are doing when using their cellphones. If you have a child with access to a cellphone and an internet connection, I can almost guarantee they have some form of social media (often not under their real name), an application to message friends (Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok), and an application/folder that’s used to hide pictures or videos they don’t want you to see.
It would be impossible to list all the applications that provide these functions; however, a quick search of their downloaded applications (viewed from the downloads of the iPhone App Store or Google Play Store) will show you the app and the function of that application. An app that hides photographs, videos, or GPS location is what I’d call a “clue” in the situation of possible inappropriate behavior from a child. This doesn’t mean they’re a victim of something, though I would say it’s cause for you (the parent) to do some digging and see what’s going on in your child’s life.
The following graphic was created by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in September 2019, and contains 21 apps that are popular among minors, along with brief summaries of their capabilities. Click here for a full-size version.
I hope this information hasn’t scared you but has instead made you eager to be more involved in your child’s life or helped you to be more aware of what goes on in the world. Above all, do your best to maintain open communication and trust with your child, your child’s friends, and their parents. Be involved and attentive. If signs of child abuse — or red flags indicating the potential for abuse — appear, you’ll have a much greater chance of hearing about it and being able to respond appropriately. Links for articles referenced can be found in the sidebar, as well as an infographic from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office for 21 phone applications which parents should be aware of.