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The threat of child abuse typically lurks close to home

Jonel Aleccia, Spokesman Review, April 8, 2007

The thing is, the abuser was such a nice guy. He wasn't a monster, some stranger preying on the single mom and her 7-year-old daughter. He was a friend, a neighbor, a 35-year-old man who said he saw how hard the Spokane woman worked and wanted to help out. He carried her groceries. He bought her dinner. He offered to baby-sit. And then, late at night, under the guise of watching TV, the nice guy molested the second-grader.

"He started by rubbing her legs," said Detective Doug Orr, who conducts polygraph exams for the Spokane Police Department and the state Department of Corrections. "Then he penetrated her."

The scary thing isn't just that such a scenario occurred, said Orr, who administered a maintenance polygraph last week aimed at holding the convicted sex offender, now 42, to the terms of his probation. Equally alarming is how often it happens.

"This is as routine as it gets," said Orr, who has interviewed hundreds of offenders in a two-decade career.

While popular perception warns of "stranger danger" and urges society to protect children from outsiders, law enforcement experts and advocates for abused children say the real threat most often lurks close to home.

Nearly 85 percent of abused children are hurt by a parent acting alone or with another person, according to the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway. That includes about 80 percent of sexual abuse cases and nearly 90 percent of neglect, and the ratio is as true in Eastern Washington and North Idaho as it is in the rest of the country. Perpetrators almost always are known to the victim, advocates say. Even worse, they're usually trusted relatives, friends or authority figures who use intimacy as a means for abuse.

"People who are worried about kids, about people on the playgrounds snatching them up, you're kind of misdirected," Orr said. "I've only seen two or three of the 'bogeyman' type offenders in my career."

Abusers spend considerable time and energy getting close to their victims, a process known as "grooming," Orr said. That view is echoed by Marcia Black-Gallucci, an advocate with the Victims Rights Response Team, a Spokane agency that saw more than 9,000 clients last year.

"If you're a trusting sort, the offender can groom the parent first," she said. "It can go on for a year or a long, long time."

Serial abusers often reveal that they target vulnerable women with children, advocates said.

"The really common scenario is a single mom whose boyfriend is really good with her kids," Black-Gallucci said. "Afterwards, she says, 'He didn't value me, he didn't want me, he wanted access to my children.' "

Other abusers seek out positions in which they'll have access to and authority over children. That can include coaches, teachers, youth group leaders and others. 

"Lots of Santa Clauses and clowns are child molesters," Black-Gallucci said.

Once they've gained trust, offenders slowly begin to display aberrant behavior. Physical abuse might begin with a shove, a slap or a harder-than-necessary spanking. Sexual abuse can start with affectionate back rubs or massages that gradually veer into private areas.

"It starts with tickling over the clothing and then moves to tickling under the clothing," Orr said.

Many offenders don't intend to hurt their victims, Orr said. They often claim to care about the children and tell themselves that the behaviour wasn't wrong or that it wasn't as bad as it seemed.

"There's a lot of denial and minimization," Orr said.

Offenders blur physical and psychological boundaries so thoroughly that victims often don't know they're being abused, experts said. They'll offer gifts, treats or special favors. They'll tell children that the abuse is OK, that it's normal, that everybody does it, Black-Gallucci said. 

"They'll tell the child: 'You and I are special. I love you in such a special, unique way.' "

Physical abusers will tell their victims that they deserved the punishment, said Tinka Schaffer, an advocate at the Children's Village treatment center in Coeur d'Alene.

"They'll say, 'I never hit you that hard; it was just a little swat,' " she said.

The hardest thing about confronting abuse is cutting through the web of denial and distortion that surrounds it, experts said. The first step requires becoming aware that sexual, physical and emotional abuse exists.

"We see it everywhere," said Black-Gallucci. "We walk down the street and say, 'You're an offender, I can just tell.' "

That doesn't mean that people should become universally suspicious, Orr said. Even after two decades of analyzing sex offenders, he tells his children, ages 17, 15 and 11, that most people are good.

"I tell my kids, that's only a small percent of the population," he said.

He urges parents to communicate with their kids, to talk to them about good touching and bad touching and why no one has a right to make them uncomfortable.

"You don't have to worry about it, but you have to be concerned about it," Orr said. "And you have to sit down with your children and talk. End of book."

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