Stranger Danger

Child sexual abuse occupies a dark part of our national psyche. Every parent’s worst nightmare is having someone hurt their child, but when vulnerable children are sexually abused we reserve a special kind of disgust and anger in our community response.

But when you become a parent it suddenly gets very real.

This keeps me up some nights, worrying who is lying in wait for our kids, online and on the streets and what can we do to stop them. My conversations with experts tell me that the only path is for us to band together as a society to prevent the secrecy that allows child abusers to offend, to teach the kids to trust their instincts, and to learn about the places and people that can do them harm.

What all parents need to know

What we read about pedophiles doesn’t give us the full picture. First we need the facts. Stories often can’t be reported to protect the children involved. So the data we have isn’t all encompassing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics keeps figures on sexual assaults reported to police around Australia. In 2016 7,537 children under the age of 14 were sexually abused. 5,641 – three quarters – were girls.

Sexual abuse of children represents one-third of total sexual assaults reported in 2016.

Last year, the number of sexual assault victims increased for the fifth consecutive year, up from 21,948 victims in 2015 to 23,052 victims, to reach their highest levels in seven years.

And of course, these are just the reported cases, the true tally is likely much higher. Children often don’t tell and some families are too frightened to report what happens in their midst.

We need to uncover more of the facts. The risks are not just posed by strangers, most sex abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they are related to or know well.

Girls are more likely to be victims of familial or incest abuse, while boys are more likely to be harmed by someone outside their family or close circle.

How do we know who to trust with our precious little child? How do you teach your child to be wary of people who are close to them? We want our children to be strong and informed not scared.

There are misconceptions about pedophiles and how to stop a tragedy before it happens. When we focus on our disgust and fury and not on how to prevent it we disempower ourselves as mothers (and fathers). Fear stops us from knowing how to protect our children and ourselves from this threat. We need to understand this fear and use it.

We need to know about the people who lure children. They aren’t just strangers. It’s the abuse of power that usually makes the conditions right for a child to be abused. It’s when a child isn’t able to challenge the relationship when something doesn’t feel quite right. When they are unable to extract themselves from uncomfortable environments, when they can’t tell someone, this is the fertile ground for the secrets that sew the abuse.

We need common sense too. I know fantastic dads and grandads who have felt very uncomfortable talking to a child at school pickup lest they get called creepy. Good men, teachers and coaches. It’s a terrible conundrum.

Listen: Chloe Shorten talks about her blended family with Mia Freedman. (post continues…)

A useful fear

Like many parents I remember when I heard of the beachy young girl snatched by a husband and wife in a Noosa park on her way home, when a baby was found on a toilet block roof. I remember the horror stories about boys lives’ ruined by people they trusted. I was fearful for a long time. I don’t want this fear for my three children.

Our job is to teach our kids to take manageable risks, not to frighten them into avoiding the challenges they must face to grow up into responsible individuals. These are the moments our hearts are in our mouths, from that first walk alone to school, to them first using a computer all the way to navigating schoolies week. They need to learn that fear can be useful if they are in danger, this is an important skill too.

I remember, as a teenager watching vigilantly when I was at a bus stop or walking home at night. Then I became a parent and the alarm-bells went off in my brain when I was holding my little boy and heard about Daniel Morecombe’s disappearance, catching a bus on a busy road in the middle of the day on Christmas. A few years ago I met Denise, his mother. We spent time judging the Australian Women’s Weekly Women of the Future Awards, a good woman, focused on her now older children, I was astonished at her strength.

When children disappear there is unimaginable pain for their families, public grief and other parents scour the details of the articles to learn how to prevent this from happening to their family. Madeleine McCann looks like so many of our little girls; little William Tyrell; Bung Siriyakorn Siriboon; these names are seared forever in our minds.

Know what they’re engaged in on and offline

Technology broadens our lives but opens doors to unwanted risk, we learn of these every other day. For all the shining possibilities of the internet and social media, they also pose new risks, and require new responses.  I worry too about the possibility that predators can access my children when they should be safest, in our own home. We do our best to educate the kids, make them aware of dangers and monitor what they do online. It gets harder as the mobility of devices proliferate to be looking over their shoulder at some point we have to trust them.

We try to look carefully at who we should trust to babysit, medical professionals, teachers and coaches, our neighbours and all those who inhabit our social network in the physical world but what of the online world? You wouldn’t leave your ten-year-old unattended and unsupervised at Westfield – but what about the internet?

We must talk with our kids before they first venture online, ask them what they want to browse and post, what apps are they using what games do they play, research these and give them the ground rules and constantly observe and check in- depending on their ages.

Just recently a 10 year old was groomed by a predator using the popular online game Roblox through the chat feature.  Like Minecraft, Roblox is a simulated reality game aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds. Three million people are using this game. Minecraft is another. Kids can use the games to play and communicate with their school friends. This is where they are targeted by predators. I’m not sure why a game targeted to such young kids needs chatrooms but nevertheless we need to know about them and their safety features before letting our kids near them.

Cyber safety expert and herself a former police officer Susan McLean, explained to me, “as a society we can only legislate so much to protect children from unwanted interactions. Parents must arm themselves with the information and teach their children the rules of engagement before they go online, not after there has been a problem”.

But it’s not only parents in the drivers seat. I think the app builders can do more and the platforms can improve their reporting tools. Parents want more safeguards built into these products perhaps like the like control settings or passwords on streamed tv, to assist parents to ensure kids are accessing age-appropriate content.

We still don’t know what incidence of child abuse happens online. Some cases may start with online contact but then become physical. A lot of child abuse online is the sharing of images or videos that never comes to light in the real world. The AFP is doing an incredible job identifying and shutting down networks of pedophiles, I am so grateful they are there.

Behind the Screen: Online Child Exploitation in Australia in 2017 reported the Australian Federal Police (‘AFP’) received 11,000 online child exploitation reports in 2015.  INTERPOL’s International Child Sexual Exploitation image database reports indicate that as of 1 June 2016, there were 194 identified Australia-based child victims and 102 identified Australian offenders.

There is constant conversation required to prevent the private world of online activity- what happens if someone send your kid a rude picture or befriends them through a computer game? We need skills to be alert, not alarmed.

Searching for the right research to show me how to teach my little kids about predators. I’ve learned its best to start with teaching them how to be aware of their environment, their feelings, doubts and instincts.  In my old-school 1970s childhood, a world away from how today’s kids are learning about life, we were warned about strangers. “Don’t get into anyone’s car and don’t talk to strangers, don’t accept lollies” seemed to be the sum total of the advice. Police visit the school and talked ‘stranger danger’.  Even this is a potential trap

How does a little kid tell the difference between a police officer, a firefighter a security guard, train inspectors?

We must learn to trust our instincts

There were risks in our childhoods but many were manageable and we looked to institutions with great trust – the police, the courts, the doctors, teachers, the churches and the media. Since then we have had our collective hearts broken by the abuse of trust that has occurred by many of these institutions.

This led to the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The community has been learning together about keeping kids safe online, parents being involved in their kids worlds, teaching our kids to speak up and not just blindly trust any adult.  Susan McLean, who for years has been the go-to-expert on teaching parents and kids how to safe, tells children to draw an outline of their hand and each finger either write or drawer an adult that would help them if they were trouble. “What we want it kids not to talk to strangers online. We need to prevent rather than arrest whenever possible”.

Gavin De Becker is an international security expert who has advised public figures and organisations for decades. He has also written one of the most sensible books I’ve seen about children’s safety; Protecting the Gift : Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe, and Parents Sane.

He helps us to identify the warning signs we can observe  like “forced teaming”- where an adult attempts to bond with a child over shared interests, or an adult who ignores the rules the parents set for the child. He teaches that the danger signs we sense in our bodies and sometimes ignore are vital.  It’s a lesson in trusting your inner ‘guardian” that I found very useful.

He points to a program called ‘The Test of Twelve’ developed by a US family education organization that poses questions to ask before you should let your child walk to school alone.

He guides parents on the process of selecting carers, schools, what to be vigilant about- how to prevent the wrong kind of access to children. Walking through scenarios to teach our kids when they feel threatened, for example to seek out a woman if they are lost- (he says the research suggests the woman will be more likely to help a child to safety) and to listen to their instincts even if it means yelling or ‘telling’ when they’ve been warned not to.

If they ask you not to tell; tell. If they ask you not to yell, then yell.

For four years, the Royal Commission has heard tale after tale of the most horrific abuse of vulnerable children.  We’ve shuddered at the crimes and marvelled at the courage of the survivors, the brave souls who’ve come forward to tell their story.  Their bravery has put a hidden shame into the headlines.

Already, the Royal Commission has produced two landmark reports – one into the design of a national redress scheme, and a second into reforms to the criminal justice system. In December, it will hand down its final report, and hopefully provide our country with a plan to better protect our children, and ensure that this never, ever happens again

Prevention is better than cure

The Royal Commission has exposed some of the darkest corners of Australia’s history. Long-buried secrets have been brought to the surface, old wounds have been opened. Survivors have shown a courage that cannot be put into words.

The best way to honour those who summoned the courage to face and relive old fears is to follow the guidance of the experts in the field to build a safer, happier future for all Australian children.

So much of what we say and write about this issue is instinctive, a protective, parental impulse.  Our fear, our anger is understandable. I just think we need to be more knowledgeable so we can be confident we are doing the best for our kids. The Royal Commission has quite rightly captured the attention and empathy of the nation, but so too does every story of abuse of children.

There’s strength in numbers. Each of us must work together with our kids, teachers, police and community leaders so we don’t ever say I wish I’d known, or I never thought it could happen to my kid.

If you are concerned contact Lifeline. There are some excellent resources for parents and kids such as stopitnow.orgE-safety,,

This article has originally been published on Mamamia.

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