The sexual abuse of a child often begins innocently enough-perhaps with just a simple conversation, according to Helen McGrail, Belpre clinic director for Tri County Mental Health and Counseling Services.
The clinic provides counseling for child abuse victims.
"Initially it seems there's nothing inappropriate going on," she said. "The abuser makes a child feel special, maybe buying things for him or her long before the victimization begins. And children love attention."
McGrail said abusers can be very patient, noting that some pedophiles will take weeks or months to gain a child's confidence.
But she said the sexual abuse can start without the child being involved at all.
"A single mom with young children may be the initial target for the sex abuser," McGrail said. "And a pedophile may even date the mother awhile in order to get to her kids-this is a common tactic. Single moms have to be extremely careful about who they let into their lives."
Some 'tricks' often used by child sex offenders
Accidental Touching Trick- Children are often unaware that accidental touching may be intentional or may be an offender attempting to touch closer to genitalia the next time.
Authority Trick-Many of us have taught our children to respect authority without realizing that individuals who target our children take advantage of their position such as a teacher, coach, religious or club leader.
Desensitize Trick-Offenders may continually talk to children about sex or use pornography to demonstrate sexual acts. They may arouse a child's curiosity by emailing or leaving sexual material and aids around where they may see them.
Drug and Alcohol Trick-Drugs or alcohol can be used to incapacitate a child, making them highly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Friendship Trick-Older children may bribe a younger child (or same age) by saying that they will not be their friend anymore unless they participate in a sexual act.
Games Trick-Body contact games such as wrestling are played where touching genitalia is part of the rules.
Outing Trick-Offender is continually attempting to take a child out alone for special trips or outings and insists that no one else attend.
Threat Trick-Children may be threatened into cooperation and further silenced. Once the abuse has taken place, they threaten to expose the child either to their parents or to their friends.
Costume Trick-Most volunteers who dress up as clowns, cartoon characters or as Santa Claus during the holiday season are not pedophiles attempting to access children. However, you should always be aware that there are pedophiles who would do anything to get at kids.
Karen Days, president of the Center for Family Safety and Healing in Columbus, said abusers have many ways of initiating contact with a child.
"There's no real recipe, but it's clear that the child never triggers the behavior-it's the perpetrator who inserts himself into the life of the child," she said.
Days said pedophiles often use grooming techniques to get close to their victims.
"This grooming can take weeks or even years," she said. "Sometimes, in the case of a teenager, for example, they may wait until the victim reaches what the state recognizes as the age of consent."
Echoing McGrail's concern, Days recalled a case in which the abuser preyed on teenage girls by first developing a relationship with their mothers.
"But his ultimate plan was to gain access to the young girls," she said.
An abuser may also get close to a child by simply offering to help an overwhelmed parent.
"They're looking for that kind of vulnerability," Days said. "They might offer to watch the child or to babysit. Parents should probably beware of someone, even a family member, who's constantly offering to take care of a child when they have to go out."
McGrail said pedophiles often get involved in areas where children are most likely to be found.
That may include playground programs, summer camps, and even church youth activities.
"That's why background checks are very important for anyone working with children," she added. "Even small volunteer organizations should do this. Many churches don't screen workers, although most Catholic Churches are now providing special training for church personnel who work with kids."
Background checks are available locally through the Washington County Sheriff's Office's civil division, by calling 373-6623, ext. 308 . A state background check costs $35, a federal background check is $45, and both can be obtained for $80.
Once a pedophile gains access to a child, he may use a variety of "tricks" designed to foster sexual activity, including "accidental" touching of genital areas, playing body games like wrestling, or even giving the child drugs or alcohol, according to the Parents for Megan's Law and Crime Victims Center website at parentsformeganslaw.org.
Days said parents are often uncomfortable talking to children, especially very young children, about sexual subjects like what is appropriate and inappropriate touching.
"But if parents don't have this conversation, the child won't know it's wrong for another adult to touch them," she said. "Reassure children that if anyone touches them other than mom or dad, that's not OK."
After the sexual abuse takes place, abusers have other tricks to make sure a child doesn't talk about it.
"To protect themselves they will make threats, maybe to harm the child's pet or a family member," McGrail said. "Children take that seriously. Even teenagers will respond to such threats."
Days added that many parents inadvertently teach children that all adults are figures of authority, therefore youngsters may be reluctant to question or report the actions of an abuser.
"Parents may also tell children not to talk to strangers, but it's not usually a stranger who abuses a child," she said. "It's someone the child trusts, even someone living in their home."
McGrail said sexual abusers may be family members.
"People often want to turn a blind eye to this," she said. "They think the problem can be resolved within the family. But that's a mistake."
McGrail said trying to address the abuse from inside the family circle is essentially a way of covering it up and pretending it never happened.