Child Safe of Central Missouri Inc. does as much as it can to seek justice and minimize trauma for juvenile victims of abuse. The Democrat’s four-part series on Child Safe during Child Abuse Prevention Month is ending with what the community can do to help.
Child Safe serves children who are alleged victims of severe physical or sexual abuse, and provides advocacy for their non-offending family members. They also work with children that witness violence or abuse or may be exploited. The nonprofit organization, one of 15 Children’s Advocacy Centers in Missouri, is located in Sedalia and serves 13 counties — Benton, Carroll, Chariton, Henry, Johnson, Lafayette, Linn, Morgan, Moniteau, Pettis, Saline, Hickory and Cooper.
Child Safe Executive Director Kim Allen has said multiple times during her interviews this month with the Democrat that the stereotypes of “stranger danger” or a perpetrator always being a man are false. Perpetrators can be male or female, and the majority know their victim, usually a close friend or family member. She also told the Democrat the exception to that rule: “stranger danger” is very real online. Allen said Child Safe is seeing an increase in cyber cases.
Jill Green, a Sedalia Police Department detective, is frequently part of Child Safe’s multi-disciplinary team when she is part of a case. She noted that the team is a resource for each member, saving time and effort by sharing information.
Green also works part-time with the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, based in Platte County, covering 27 counties including Pettis County. She said the task force receives tips through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as reported by service providers such as Google or Snapchat that come across questionable content.
It can be a lengthy process, but the task force obtains warrants for information from companies such as Facebook when crimes such as exploiting children are suspected. Investigators like Green pour over pages and pages of messages, sometimes discovering multiple victims in other jurisdictions. Sometimes the task force portrays a child online, then meets “travelers” who come to meet the child in person. Green said Pettis County is not exempt from those cases.
“One thing I have noticed and been just shocked about is the number of young kids who are basically turned loose with cellphones or no supervision on the Internet,” Green said. “The youngest I had was three 10-year-old girls who friended some person they did not know on Facebook and then through grooming by that person, who happens to be in New York, they were sending all kinds of videos and photos of themselves. … They had no idea who they were sending this stuff to. They thought they knew, but they didn’t have a clue.”
Green noted that apps make it easy for a person to disguise their true identity on the Internet, and that youth feel a sense of anonymity online but that isn’t really the case.
“Once those photos are sent, they’re out there forever,” Green reminded citizens. “They don’t go away and you don’t know what that person is doing with them.”
Green and Allen fully acknowledged it’s hard for parents to monitor a child’s online activity, but encouraged parents to be aware and look through their child’s phone and web history. Allen said it’s not enough to simply say a parent will look through their child’s phone — the parent needs to follow through and actually check it.
They suggested collecting cellphones before bedtime, turning off Wi-Fi at night, requesting children’s passwords and checking phone and browser history.
“It’s just having those conversations with your kids,” Allen said. “You’re not doing it because you don’t trust them, you’re doing it because you’ve got to protect them.”
Allen noted it’s not the child’s job to prevent sexual abuse, but rather an adult’s responsibility. However, parents should empower their children to feel comfortable reporting something that makes them uncomfortable.
“As a parent you have to educate your children. … I think it’s important to empower your children to feel like they are in control of their bodies, so if they don’t want to give somebody a hug, don’t make them give somebody a hug. High fives and fist bumps are great,” Allen said. “… There’s lots of ways you can be affectionate but don’t have to invade their space. Empower them to say ‘no’ and teach them to tell — that’s the hardest.”
Green said most perpetrators have easy access to a child, usually someone they know and love. That trusting relationship makes it hard for a child to report the abuse.
“A lot of the little bitties don’t understand that it’s wrong,” Green explained. “They know it doesn’t feel right or something’s not right about it, but No. 1, sex is designed to feel good so it’s not hurting them, and they love that person. In their minds, something’s off but they don’t know what and they don’t want that person to get in trouble, to leave and go to prison.”
“And you don’t know what they’ve threatened the child with — it could be they have to leave, it could also be ‘I’m going to hurt somebody,’” Allen added.
Both Green and Allen pointed out that most offenders are good at manipulating their juvenile victim into thinking the abuse was the victim’s idea, making the child feel guilty if they tell someone.
Allen said one of the most important things a parent, or any adult who works with children, can do is to simply pay attention. While it can be a sign of other issues, a sudden behavior change is a common indicator the child is being physically or sexually abused. Allen gave examples, such as a straight-A student starting to fail in school, a potty-trained child wetting the bed, or a child starting to experience frequent nightmares.
“If you suspect your kid is being abused or has been abused, call the police department and report it. That’s step No. 1 because to get into Child Safe it has to be referred by Children’s Division or law enforcement,” Green said. “You can also hotline it to the Child Abuse Hotline. It’s so hard, but try not to question your kid too much about it. Get the meat of it, then report it. Listen and let them know, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. And I’m here for you. I’m not going to ask you questions about it, but if you want to talk about it I will listen to you. And I love you. And it’s going to be OK.’ They need to hear that.”
Allen noted Child Safe offers Stewards of Children training, which trains people in preventing child sexual abuse, for any group interested.
If you think a child is being abused or neglected, call the Child Abuse and Neglect hotline at 1-800-392-3738. If a child is in immediate danger, call 911.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or on Twitter @NicoleRCooke.