(Illustrative photo – not related to the story )
You don’t need to spend a lot of time catching up with real friends, and as my schedule changed recently, I found myself catching up with one I hadn’t talked to much in years. In catching up with her, the conversations about her kids contained a new player. Her 19-year-old daughter had a 19-year-old boyfriend, Dale. They grow up so fast.
It became clear that Dale was a very big part of their lives. He baby-sits her ten-year-old son- a very handy arrangement. But then one evening she mentioned that her day started when Dale called and asked if he could take her son on a bike ride. Then there was the evening when her son asked if he could spend the night with Dale. Not with his sister and Dale, just with Dale. Then there was the conversation I overheard between my friend and her husband where my friend said “would you please give Dale some money? He’s been spending so much time with Sammy”.
My blood ran cold.
I loved kids when I was 19- I still do. I worked at a summer camp when I was 19 because I enjoyed spending time with kids. But I also enjoyed leaving at the end of the day, listening to CD’s with “warning-explicit lyrics” labels, and conversing with people who could operate a juice-box without assistance. All things one can’t or shouldn’t do with a child in tow.
There are people in this world who believe child sexual abuse happens, and there are those who believe child sexual abuse happens elsewhere. My friend is solidly in the second camp. She’s such a good mother- I’ve watched her deal with her children’s illness, report cards and heartaches. She became a surrogate mother for so many kids in the neighborhood and in her extended family. And she loved them all- that’s who she is.
But she isn’t a survivor. All she knows about child sexual abuse is what she’s picked up from TV and a few friends. The media doesn’t represent the issue well- my friend is terrified of her kids getting kidnapped. The media doesn’t show that 20% of kids are sexually abused, mostly by people known and trusted by them and their parents. It doesn’t depict predators bonding with their prey, becoming a huge part of their lives. It doesn’t depict how they desensitize their prey to being touched, manipulated and silenced. It doesn’t show that kids rarely talk about it while they’re still kids. But the worst part of understanding CSA through the media is that it gives you the option of changing the station, turning it off, and eliminating it from your consciousness.
I’m a survivor- child sexual abuse is in the deepest parts of my being. My internal TV station is constantly on the Child Sexual Abuse station. Thankfully, at this point in my life that station doesn’t constantly broadcast horror flicks, but it’s still on. I know how common it is, I know how damaging it is, and I’m familiar with the common plot-twists that survivors and predators employ. And I can see Dale seems to be reading from a common sex-offender script. I’ve memorized lengthy check-lists of warning signs that an adult poses a danger to a child, but they all boil down to this- if someone is more interested in spending time with your child than you are, you need to worry.
As a survivor, I often feel my life is lived outside the soundbyte realm of facebook memes and Hallmark cards. I don’t expect to ever see a meme on facebook that goes “that awkward moment when you realize your friend’s child is in danger- and your friend doesn’t.” But soundbytes or no soundbytes, I need to tell a friend and co-worker that one of her worst nightmares is on the brink of coming true, and that I can see it and she can’t.
The next day we worked together, I had the perfect opportunity. On lunch break, after she talked with her husband for ten minutes (a conversation where Dale’s name was mentioned at least twice), I walked up to her and said “Tammy, I’m worried about the way you talk about Dale and Sammy. It sounds like Dale is doing all the things someone does if they want to sexually abuse a child”.
She looked at me silently, a bit of tension in her face. She waited for the punch-line. Then her face relaxed, her brown eyes softened, and her mouth curled into a smile. She laughed at my naivety.
“Mel, I trust Dale. He’s Jodi’s boyfriend.”
“I know you trust him. But people who do that to kids are great at getting people to trust them.”
“But Mel, he’s 19. And he’s Jodi’s boyfriend.” The emphasis meant “he’s having sex with a grown woman.”
“I know. But look at Jerry Sandusky. He was married, and he still molested kids. And his age has nothing to do with it.”
There was a little more tension in her face.
“Tammy, please take a look at these websites.”
I thought about calling into work the next day. I could picture her patronizing smile all day. I could see her saying, with her eyes “poor Melanie. She’s so twisted. To her, the world is full of people who want to molest kids. And she doesn’t think I can protect mine.”
Instead, when I got there, she cornered me as soon as I was alone.
“Thank you so much for telling me that. I looked at that website. Dale has lots of those characteristics of sex offenders. I talked with Sammy- he says he never did anything to him. Thank God. But thank you so much.”
Sammy is ten. The average age of first victimization for sexual abuse is nine. Sammy has a long, risky childhood ahead of him. I know that 90% of those who sexually abuse a child will never see a day behind bars, so the odds are good Sammy will have another babysitter, or a teacher, or a coach, or a friend’s parent, who has sexually abused another child. But his mom can protect him better now, and he’s a lot safer. And knowing her, she’ll tell every parent she knows about what she learned. Grooming a child for sexual abuse isn’t a crime- there is nothing for me or my friend to tell the police about Dale. It’s not a perfect ending, but it’s a happy one. One well worth all the awkward moments.