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How to protect your kids? ‘Talk to them’

In light of recent accusations of child molestation in the Pike County area, parents may be questioning a few things themselves: How could I have known? What if it were my children? How can I prevent this from happening?

The answer, of course, is that parents can’t control everything in their children’s lives. But Pike Regional Child Advocacy Center director Mona Watson said there are ways to at least be more aware.

At the top of that list: communication.

“So many times parents say, ‘Why didn’t I see this?’ You can’t beat yourself up about something that already happened. Just don’t let it happen again,” Watson said. “Listen to what your child is saying.”

Watson said it could take as little as 10 minutes a day to open the lines of communication between parents and children.

“Talk about if anything is bothering them. Just give them an opportunity to tell (if anything happened),” Watson said. “Children will come here, and I’ll ask them, ‘Why didn’t you tell anyone?’ Children say, ‘Because no one ever asked.’”

Watson said if conversations about children’s lives become a habit, the task will become easier.

But, aside from talking, Watson said parents can watch for several signs of sexual abuse.

Some of those things are extreme changes in behavior, a loss of appetite or a change in personality, including active children who begin to withdraw from people or activities.

Children could become unable to control their emotions, spark unusual interests in sexual matters or have recurrent nightmares or other disturbed sleep patterns.

Watson said another key indicator could be a child having a fear or intense dislike of being left alone with someone.

Of course, there are also more serious physical signs to watch for, such as torn or stained underclothing and penile, rectal or vaginal bleeding, itching or swelling.

Watson said communication is still the most important factor because some children won’t show any outward signs of abuse.

“It could be one of (the signs). It could be none of them,” she said. “I’ve known children in such disassociation they act as if nothing is wrong.”

And, when talking to children, Watson said parents should always be encouraging if their child tells them he or she has been abused.

“Their biggest fear is they will not be believed or think it’s their fault. Control your reaction, and don’t panic. Try to remain calm, and report it to the appropriate people,” Watson said.

Another area popular for sexual predators is the Internet.

“There are a whole lot of things going on and different dangers for kids of different ages,” said Nathan Stump, assistant U.S. Attorney for the middle district of Alabama.

In today’s day, the “hot topic” issues have become “cyber bullying” and “sexting.”

“Cyber bullying is usually is some sort of harassment conduct. It can be someone posting something you thought was private to a public website,” Stump said.

Sexting, he said, is when someone takes a nude or partially nude photo and sends it to another person who circulates it.

And, on the Internet, people can pretend to be someone else.

“We’ll see young women and teenagers who think that they are talking to someone they know, and it turns out they are talking to a complete stranger,” Stump said.

One of the more horrifying cases, he said, involved a man who would send an e-mail to a girl he didn’t know on Facebook or MySpace and eventually extract enough information from them to blackmail his victims.

“He would say, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I’m one of your favorite people in the world.’ He would look at their online profile and say ‘I know about how your dog died’ or little facts the girls were talking about to someone so they would feel like they knew him instead of thinking he was a stranger,” Stump said. “He would get the girls to send them answers to 10 questions that got increasingly more personal, each time a little more flirtatious. It would evolve to the point girls were saying intimate details about their lives, and then he would tell them, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you to, I will tell everyone.’ He actually had some women video tape themselves doing degrading acts.”

Stump, like Watson, said communication and monitoring are the best ways to put a halt to Internet sex crimes.

“My advice is to have a conversation with kids: start when they are 10, 11 or 12 and explain the dangers of all that. Making it as real as possible is the key,” Stump said. “A lot of child sex offenders are on the Internet and offending on the Internet daily.”

Another danger isn’t actually with children being online but parents, too.

“One way these sex offenders can satisfy their sexual desire for children is to take innocent pictures of kids online and manipulate them,” he said. “If you have little kids and put pictures of them online and put them on MySpace or Facebook, anything accessible to other people, is going to be fair game.”

When children do become victims of sexual crimes, Watson said it is key they get some type of counseling to resolve it.

“No matter where they go — Christian counselors, mental health, here — just get counseling,” she said.

The Child Advocacy Center will hold a community support group open to both parents and children, in light of recent events that have taken place.

Anyone interested in participating can call 670-0487.