The explosion of sexual abuse revelations in recent months reveals a much bigger problem than many imagined, and Americans are now far more aware of the sexual abuse of children from cases ranging from Hollywood to disgraced USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar.
And a career sex crimes prosecutor says parents can play a vital role in preparing kids to recognize lewd behavior and in helping them come forward if abuse has occurred.
Stacey Honowitz serves as an assistant state attorney in Florida, specializing in cases of sexual abuse. She is also the author of “My Privates are My Privates,” a book designed to teach young kids about where people should not be touching them.
Honowitz says the litany of allegations of abuse remind us all that sexual predators are not creepy looking guys in trench coats.
“I’ve seen in my 30 years experience that it’s not that stranger. It’s normally somebody that you know. It could be someone in the family. It could be a coach. It could be a rabbi. It could be a priest. Sex crimes really know no boundaries. Anybody can be a predator and anybody can be a victim,” said Honowitz.
In short, it’s often people that we instinctively trust who may feel the most emboldened to act in an illicit way.
“What we find is people who were so trusted are usually master manipulators, because they know that the kids trust them. They know the kids aren’t going to report them. They know the kids have this bond with them. They feel they can manipulate the child so if they do something wrong then that child is never going to come forward,” said Honowitz.
“And that’s what we saw in Nassar. These girls never thought that this elite doctor who was training the Olympic athletes would ever do something and cross the line. So they didn’t know to report it and they didn’t know if something was wrong,” said Honowitz.
That why she says parents must communicate with their kids that any improper touching from anyone is wrong.
“You want tell your kid, ‘Even if you love [the suspected predator], even if you trust them, they can always do something to betray that trust. And you can never feel funny about telling mom or dad or somebody that you feel uncomfortable,’ even if you think to yourself this could never be happening,” said Honowitz.
With an endless array of after-school and weekend extracurricular activities, Honowitz says it is vital for parents to keep an eye out for some telltale signs of trouble, starting with someone who is spending more time than necessary with your kids.
“A lot of parents feel that if someone is taking such an interest in their child that it’s wonderful. And I’m not here to tell you that every coach in the world or every person that’s nice to your kid is a sexual predator because that’s not the case.
“But if you see conversations, text messages, the person wants to take your kid when you’re not around, tells you they’re going to babysit or take them to the movies. If it doesn’t pass the smell test or the relationship is just reeking of something that’s not kosher, you need to ask your kid.
“‘What’s going on? Why are you spending so much time? Why is he giving you presents? Why is he taking you there? Why is he asking if you want him to babysit? Why is he taking you to a practice when you don’t have a practice?'” said Honowitz.
She says seeing the warning signs is not as complicated as some think it is.
“You really just kind of need to be smart. Use your common sense. We all think this is such a major thing and that it’s rocket science. It’s not. It’s common sense to see that someone wants to spend a lot of time with your kid and you’re trying to figure out why,” said Honowitz.
If concerns do arise, Honowitz encourages a clear, unscripted conversation.
“You don’t ever want to say, ‘Step one, tell me what happened. Step two, did he talk to you?’ You don’t want to do it that way. That’s why the conversation needs to start early and very casual,” said Honowitz.
How early should the conversation start? Probably earlier than you’d like it to and earlier than you think it should.
“You have to teach the kids, ‘My Privates are My Privates,’ just like I said in the book and no one is allowed to touch them, even if the person tells you, ‘It’s OK. I need to do it for my job,'” said Honowitz.
And she says teaching kids proper anatomy is also crucial.
“You have to be able to tell them, ‘That’s your private,’ and you have to say it in the terms that are proper. So you don’t want to make up a name for vagina. You don’t want to make up a name for penis. Because you want them to know that this is part of their anatomy and no one can touch them there,” said Honowitz
She urges parents to teach kids those proper names the same time they’re learning where their eyes, nose, hand and feet are. Honowitz also says another good way for parents of young kids to communicate is to tell kids no one may touch them in areas that are covered by their underpants or bathing suit.
When it comes to encouraging kids to tell you if they are being abused, Honowitz says stressing that open line of communication takes a lot of power away from an abuser.
“So many times the perpetrator will say, ‘Listen, if you tell somebody I’m going to do this to you. I’m going to hurt your family. I’m going to hurt you. You’re going to be in trouble.’
“You’ve got to tell the kids, ‘If you feel comfortable enough to tell me, you don’t have to worry. You’ll never be in that position. He’s never going to hurt me. He’s never going to hurt my family. But if you don’t tell me what’s going on, you will be a perpetual victim,'” said Honowitz.
Often times victims and their parents feel powerless if the predator is someone powerful or has a sterling reputation. Honowitz says you’d be surprised what happens once someone comes forward.
“Just like in the gymnastics case, there is strength in numbers. Many times when you feel that your child is going to be the only one it doesn’t work out that way. If your child comes forward, lots of times other people will come forward because someone else has taken that step,” said Honowitz.
If a parent doesn’t know what to believe or has a child who often fails to tell the truth, Honowitz says to always bring the matter to authorities. She says investigators are skilled at determining whether allegations are likely to be true or if a child is being coached by one parent to lie about another in a divorce case or some other scheme is afoot.
However, Honowitz strongly encourages parents to believe your child and let the authorities worry about the investigation. She says dismissing a child’s allegations can do great damage to them.
“If you tell your child you don’t believe them, if that child is being sexually abused you cannot imagine what kind of secrets they have to live with for the rest of their lives.
“We saw it happen in Nassar. We saw one of the fathers didn’t believe his daughter. When everybody started coming forward, he ended up committing suicide because he couldn’t live with the guilt,” said Honowitz.