Why do it? For the children. Jeff Herman didn’t go to law school to become an advocate for survivors of sex crimes. For a number of years, Jeff was a commercial litigation lawyer, meaning he represented businesses large in small in negotiations and at trial. Jeff was good at what he did, great even. But he eventually realized that representing corporations was neither rewarding nor fulfilling.
Everything changed twenty years ago. Two parents reached out to Jeff and asked for help. They shared with him every mother and father’s worst nightmare: their four-year old child came home and said “Mr. Dan” touched his “pee-pee.” Mr. Dan was a volunteer at a preschool for autistic children. And, as it turns out, Mr. Dan was a convicted pedophile. He had moved from California to Florida hoping to escape his record, and he succeeded. The preschool in question never completed a proper, simple background check. And as a result, over twenty precious children were abused while he was volunteering.
Jeff Herman found his calling. From that moment on he devoted his professional career to holding institutions accountable for doing the right thing to protect the people they serve. Often these schools, churches, and other institutions have oversights at the regional level which lead to not hiring the highest quality of employee because of lack of options or time and neglect to make the safest choices for the ones who matter most: the children.By filing suit and litigating these matters in civil court, Jeff gives a voice to the victim and helps ensure that this abuse never happens again. And today, he can think of no better way to use his legal training.
Talking to your children about sex crimes and predators. It’s a difficult topic for any parent to bring up, but one that is equally as important (if not more so) than “the talk.” Many child predators openly admit to taking advantage of children precisely because they have no idea what sex is, and they use this innocence to lure, manipulate, and “groom” their victims. “Grooming” is a strategy often used by predators to get their victims to trust them. This can be done by anything from gift giving to tickling (to desensitize the victim) to asking them simple questions to come off as a friend. When a child is sexually abused, one of two things happen: either the child doesn’t realize they’ve been hurt (and consequently he or she lets the abuse continue) or they recognize what has happened and feel shame, which leads to emotional and behavioral problems.
Even the best parent cannot completely shield his or her child from sexual predators, but families can educate children, keep open the lines of communication, and teach what it means to set healthy boundaries. Below are some more specific guidelines that Jeff recommends.
- Keep the conversation at age-appropriate level.Parents should start talking to their children at an early age about their bodies and boundaries, but the littlest ones need age-appropriate language and vocabulary. For example, younger kids can learn the correct terms for their body parts, but they don’t necessarily need to know all the details about sex. They should understand which parts are private and off-limits to others. This, combined with an anatomically correct vocabulary, will help them to appreciate what’s not acceptable and give them a way to discuss things later if something ever happens.
For tweens and teens, the conversation needs to be more mature because this is an age where children are becoming interested in sex and may even be dating. Helping young adults to understand that they do not have to do anything they don’t want to do, and that past permission does not obligate them to future sexual activities, can help prevent a negative sexual encounter.
- “No” means “no.”At any age, children should understand that they always have the right to say “no” if somebody is making them feel uncomfortable. Many children are abused because they have been taught to respect adults, and they feel uncomfortable telling them no, even when they are acting inappropriate. Other times, children are abused by a friend, even one their own age, because they felt awkward telling their friend to stop. Children must understand that nobody has the right to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable.
- Continue the conversation. Educating children about sexual abuse cannot be a one-time conversation. Instead, preventing abuse means keeping an open-line of conversation with children, engaging in their lives (including their online activities), and reiterating the risks of abuse and the importance of keeping personal boundaries.
- The red flags: spotting a predator. It is a sad world that not a week goes by that we do not hear about a teacher, clergy, coach, or community leader being arrested for child sexual assault. Jeff Herman has filed civil lawsuits involving many of them. There are plenty of indicators of sexual abuse, but for attentive parents who may already be uneasy about a specific person in their child’s life, there are some key red flags one should observe.
- An adult spending time with your child alone.Children should never be alone with a male non-familiar adult. Period. There are some female predators as well, but coaches, Boy Scout leaders, or teachers should not be spending personal time with children. Parents should demand that this behavior stop and report the offending adult to the pertinent supervisor.
- A coach without children.Most adults who volunteer to coach youth sports are genuinely caring adults who enjoy helping children, most likely because their own son or daughter is on the team. It is a serious red flag when a man coach has no children of his own on the team and especially when he has no children at all. Something is not right if this individual wants to give your child “extra” practice sessions.
- Gift giving.Gift giving is a classic indication that a child molester is grooming his victim. He does this to obtain trust or keep a child quiet after he or she has been assaulted. Question the motive behind the gift, because it may not be that your child’s math tutor is especially proud of your son.
- Social media communication.Sex offenders use social media frequently to contact and prey upon children. It’s important to have the passwords to all your child’s internet activity and know who they are communicating with. Adult figures should not be following, friending, messaging, or liking your child’s internet activity.
You’ve got mail: how the internet is the new playground for sex offenders. Thirty years ago, a pedophile may have fantasized about having sex with children without acting out on these thoughts because he felt no else could understand him or what he was thinking was outside the mainstream. Now, the internet provides websites and online chat rooms dedicated to pedophiles where they can share pictures, grooming techniques, the best places to find vulnerable children, and even share stories of their conquests. This has driven closet pedophiles into full-blown sex offenders because they receive encouragement from equally disturbed abusers across the globe.
Adding to the danger is the prevalence on new social media apps. Most adults are familiar with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and may have accounts themselves. But new programs are being developed precisely with the purpose deceiving mom and dad. For example, some messaging applications look like calculators or compasses on a mobile device, but in reality they are more like Snapchat, an app that allows a user to send a picture or text that will self-erase after a few moments of being viewed. Child predators and sexual bullies have infiltrated this new, lesser-known apps and now send inappropriate communications with the knowledge that the evidence of wrongdoing will be immediately erased.
But the news is not entirely bleak. While the internet has made today’s child more vulnerable to sexual abuse, it can also serve as a tool for investigators to catch molesters and prosecute them. What goes out on the internet is never truly ever erased or deleted, as every action leaves a “digital footprint” allowing law enforcement the opportunity to recover evidence of abuse from social media service providers. In other words, if a child has been contacted by an adult, the very technology used to make contact may be precisely the proof needed for the police to arrest them and for Jeff Herman to file a civil damages lawsuit.
The best way for parents to protect their children online is by having regular access to all their electronic devices and monitoring their interactions and messages. No adult should have electronic contact of any kind with a child without a parent being copied on the correspondence. This is not about privacy, this is about safety.
Theme parks and cruise ships: how to protect children at play away from home. A family preparing to visit a theme park or take a cruise should be concerned about keeping the children safe from predators. Theme parks and cruise ships do not just attract families looking for an adventure. They attract child predators, too. Not only do these place attract potentially dangerous visitors, they also attract predators and molesters who seek employment as a way to have regular and easy access to unsuspecting children. Background checks are notoriously lax at these accommodations, but families can still make happy memories, so long as parents take a few extra, simple steps.
- Talk to your children.Communication is key. Talking to children about the dangers of sexual predators – think “stranger, danger” – should be part of the vacation checklist. Discuss personal space, inappropriate contact by workers and visitors, and remind children to stay by a trusted adult. Also remind children to be cautious about being approached by an unknown adult when alone. Some predators initiate casual conversations with older children, get their name, and find them on social media later.
- Emergency and first aid.The family should locate the emergency and first-aid centers together and instruct children to go there if they get lost or separated. Many parents know it is not difficult to lose a child in overcrowded and chaotic environment. It’s a good idea to snap a quick photo of all children in attendance when they arrive at the park or on the ship. This way, patrons and employees know what the child looks like and what he or she is wearing if something happens.
- Restrooms.One of the most dangerous places for a child is a public bathroom. Predators often stalk their victims here and sometimes take pictures. Others are bold enough to initiate physical contact. It’s important to not let a child go to the bathroom alone; waiting for them outside the stall by the sink is a good safety precaution.
- Cruise ship cabins.Parents need to remember that cabin attendants have key cards to guest rooms. Cruise ships, with a “free-range” attitude, often encourage parents to leave their children for the night as they enjoy a casino or a bar. It is easy for a crew member to slip into a cabin when the children are alone, and parents should be mindful of this as they plan their evening activities.
Suspected abuse: when the unthinkable happens. If a parent suspects an adult in their child’s life has acted inappropriately, it is important to take action immediately. Jeff Herman knows that ignoring intuition can put a child at risk of future harm.
But identifying abuse can be tricky because predators are clever and children are impressionable. First, at an early age little ones are taught that teachers, members of clergy, and coaches are supportive and safe. They should not be questioned. But this atmosphere makes it too easy for sex offenders masquerading as protectors to prey upon, groom, and abuse boys and girls. Psychologists have studied this extensively and, while the reasons are complex, because the child is embarrassed and feels ashamed about what has happened, they often have trouble sharing their discomfort with their parents or other family members. In their mind, they feel they have “consented” to the abuse. And of course legally no child can “consent” to sex with an adult.
Observant parents need to be on alert for warning signs that often manifest themselves as behavioral and physical clues.
Behavioral and emotional signs. These types of warning signs vary slightly by the age of the child, but the core remnants are still the same. First, if the child is acting out in any way that’s out of character, especially if it’s after spending time at a place of worship, then it could be an indication that something is going wrong. Parents should be mindful of the following maladaptive behaviors:
- aggressive or cruel behavior towards family members or others
- promiscuous behavior or excessive masturbation
- acting out or disrespecting authority figures
- using drugs and alcohol
- running away from home
- noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits
- withdrawal from loved ones and social activities
- regression or depression
- mood swings and sensitivity
Physical signs. Some sexual abuse consists of exposure, masturbation, or sexual comments, and as a result, there really will not be any physical injuries. Other times, though, sexual abuse is more physical and could leave marks that cannot be ignored.
- Pain or soreness in their private areas
- bloody or stained underwear
- trouble sitting or walking
- mouth sores
- bedwetting or other involuntary urination
- self-induced injuries or suicide attempts
If a child displays any of the above behavior or physical signs, they should see a doctor immediately. And if sexual abuse is suspected, then the crime should be reported to authorities.
Reporting child sexual abuse: the criminal case. Sexual abuse is a traumatic event for everyone who has experienced it. But the devastating reality is that it often goes unreported. But this crucial first step is necessary for emotional well-being and legal justice.
An official criminal complaint is required to prosecute the sex offender. No private attorney can bring charges on behalf of the victim or the state. Reporting the crime also validates that one was committed and serves as a foundation for a civil lawsuit seeking money damages.
While speaking to a police offer or detective can provide some initial relief, many victims and their families face frustration and anxiety afterwards. It is not easy to give a statement accounting for a graphic, painful act. And because charges are brought on behalf of the people and not the child, once a statement has been given, the victim has little say in the direction of his or her case. Instead, the victim’s only role is that of a witness. He cannot chose to charge, make a deal, or dismiss.
It’s a sad fact that most sexual abuse cases will not get criminally prosecuted because of the class “he said, she said” scenario. When the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and when there is typically no evidence other than a victim’s statement, it often difficult for jurors to believe one story over another.
A money damages remedy: the civil case. Because of the way the criminal system works, civil litigation is often the only way a sex-abuse victim can have justice. While a prosecutor must prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt, a plaintiff in a civil suit has a much lower burden. This “preponderance of evidence” standard means that the evidence is just barely greater than 50%.
In a civil case, most often the institution employing the perpetrator is sued for negligence, or doing something (or not doing something) that allowed the child to be sexually abused. While negligence laws vary state-by-state, in general, when courts consider negligence action, they look to whether a crime was foreseeable or reasonably foreseeable such that the institution knew or should have known that the abuser was dangerous.
From surviving to thriving.
Rape and sexual abuse can be committed against anyone regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or social status. But regrettably, we know that most sexual abuse isn’t reported, detected, or prosecuted. Therefore, support for the victims and their families is crucial for recovery once abuse is suspected. This support ranges from professional help to informal support from family and friends. It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you that they or their child have been sexually assaulted. For a survivor’s family, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, and I encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgmental as possible. Because sometimes support means providing resources, helping them seek medical attention, or reporting the crime to the police. But often listening is the best way to support a family in crisis.
Most importantly, believe the child. There is little evidence that children make false allegations of abuse. Instead, what is more common is a child denying that abuse happened when it did. Memories of the event may return in fragments or random waves. Some events may be blocked temporarily or permanently by a phenomenon known as traumatic amnesia. Explore the situation in a non-accusatory, non-confrontational way. A phrase like, “I’m glad you told me, thank you” and “You are very brave” can help go a long way to build trust and begin the healing process. When the abuse is known, adults must face the problem honestly, protect the child at all costs by re-establishing safety and place responsibility appropriately with the abuser. You may be feeling anger, guilt, fear, loneliness, and loss. All of these are normal feelings, and it’s important that family member likewise get the support and compassion they need. Because if they don’t take of themselves, then they will not be in the best possible position to take care of the child.
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse of their own unique challenges. Episodes of daily life may be triggers and romantic relationships can be difficult. There is also a tendency to be victimized repeatedly as the result of general vulnerability in dangerous situations and exploitation by untrustworthy people. If you are the partner and friend of someone who was sexually abused in childhood, you can be an important part of their recovery, and resources are available for help to you as a supportive adult.
Therapy is also important, particularly at the beginning of a case, since it provides the opportunity to explore the healing process with the guidance of an experienced therapist. Professionals assist victims to work through the event itself and the negative emotions associated with such an event. They help the child understand the abuse is not and was not her fault. This is because abusers often try to convince the child into believing that he was an equal partner and therefore complicit in the abuse. They assume there is something they could have done to stop the abuser. They regret what they did or what they did not do. They wonder if the perpetrator would have stopped had they screamed louder or fought harder. They ask themselves if they could have avoided the situation, the location, the person.
A victim’s family and friends can also assist by continuing providing assurance to the victim and helping recovery in any way they can throughout the process. This provides added support from those who are very close to the victim, giving the support a much more personal touch than can be received from professional help.
Jeff Herman is a nationally recognized trial lawyer and advocate for survivors of rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. His law firm is dedicated to helping victims of horrible crimes heal the wounds of their abuse by empowering them through the legal process. Jeff Herman is the voice for victims. He is your child’s champion.