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Molesters don't fit the stereotypes

By Fran Hathaway

Parental vigilance or background checks won't always protect children from sexual predators.

Creepy, seamy, slimy, sordid. Pick your adjective. All fit the child molester. Pal, personable, courteous and nice. They don't seem to fit. But therein lies the difficulty of protecting children from pedophiles.They do fit. Plus another: relative. Most sexual abuse -- estimates range from 70 to 85 percent -- is committed by someone a child knows. It may be a father, grandfather or other family member. It may be someone who spots a child and romances a single mother to weasel into the family.

"There's a lot of that," says Judy Thompson, director of the Center for Children in Crisis in Palm Beach County. The center treats families that have suffered sexual abuse.

The abuser may be a neighbor or baby sitter. When two Michigan girls were kidnapped March 21, one of the three abductors, Ronald Stafford, 21, was a former baby sitter. On Tuesday, the girls were found in Daytona Beach after a nationwide search -- alive, thank goodness, though the 6-year-old said she had been molested.

Of the remaining 15-30 percent of child molesters, some are indeed disgusting-looking. Remember the man who abducted 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma, Calif., home?

But there are also average-looking people such as Carol Soret Cope describes in her new book, Stranger Danger: How to Keep Your Child Safe. Imagine a child is playing alone in a park, she says. A stranger approaches with a picture of a puppy in one hand and an empty leash in the other. "Have you seen my puppy?" the man asks. "His name is Charlie, and he's lost. Will you help me find him?" Moments later, the child is seen walking toward the bushes with the stranger, calling, "Charlie!"

Ms. Cope, a Miami attorney and psychologist, estimates that half a million children a year are targets of sexual abuse. Learning more about these creatures is an unpleasant task for any parent. But Ms. Cope's book can help. It's due in bookstores April 14.

What creates a sexual predator? Why do some gravitate toward young girls while others stalk teenage boys? No one knows for sure. But treatment rarely works. Life-time incarceration may be necessary to protect society. A parent's educated, eternal vigilance isn't foolproof, but it's important. "When any adult wants to spend a lot of time with your child, especially alone, you need to be cautious," Ms. Cope says. "I hate to say that, but after my research, I think it's true. If we're going to make a mistake, we should err on the side of caution."

Rep. Luis Rojas, R-Hialeah, is sponsoring legislation that would let parents request and pay for fingerprinting and federal background checks on people who volunteer in their children's activities. But that's not foolproof, either. A background check would not have revealed Ronald Stafford. Though he spent time in an adolescent sex offender program, that juvenile offense would not have been listed.

As we mark April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, we should note that Palm Beach County has good after-the-fact facilities. The Center for Children in Crisis educates people to the reality of sexual abuse as well as treats victims. Home Safe, the new multidisciplinary center in Lake Worth, is designed to provide better prosecution of perpetrators as well as treatment for families.

But pedophiles are canny, and some children are easy prey. "Often, the parents are working a lot," Ms. Thompson says. "The children have few friends at school and no structured activities afterward. They get lonely." Ms. Cope puts it more dramatically: "Like a lion that selects a single animal from a heard of prey, these predators quickly identify their best targets and move in."

Fran Hathaway is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post.