Protecting the vulnerable: Groups work to combat those who prey on children

She wasn’t quite 10 years old on that day she opened up the Internet to play a familiar video game.

The young girl from the Bitterroot Valley had played the game before. It was just an innocent way to spend some time. Then she accidently clicked on a link that went into a chat room where he was waiting.

Before she knew it, the predator from halfway across the country was threatening to kill her, her family and her dog if she said anything about what he planned to do next. And he began sending her pictures that no child should ever have to see.

Val Widmer, executive director of Emma’s House Children’s Advocacy Center, the man knew right away – from reading the screen’s user name – that he was dealing with a child under 10 years of age.

“She was just innocently playing a game and then suddenly she was in a situation where her family was being threatened,” Widmer said. “She thought if she said anything, she was risking her family. … He was definitely a predator who lived all the way back in Tennessee.”

“When kids get on the Internet, they are just a few clicks away from getting in a real bad situation,” she said.

This month, the team at Emma’s House is working to spread the word on how parents and the community can help protect the most vulnerable, as part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Montana’s only stand-alone nonprofit children’s advocacy center will host two lunchtime learning presentations, a fundraiser at Clatters Coffee House and the annual “We Care About Kids” bike parade on Saturday, May 2 (See accompanying story).

Last week, four members of Emma’s House team of professionals took time to talk about some of the things that parents, relatives and anyone else who cares about kids can do to help prevent child abuse.

Their message to parents was simple enough.

Watch for changes in the way your children behave. Take time to truly listen to what it is that they have to say. Don’t be afraid to take the role of Internet police. And work hard to keep the lines of communication open so if something bad happens, they won’t be frightened to tell you.

“Sometimes this kind of thing happens even in the homes with the best parents,” said Amy Rau, the center’s therapist. “Parents can do everything right in the world and sometimes their kids still can end up in a bad situation.”

Unfortunately, the statistics show the danger most often doesn’t come from far away.

According to statistics compiled in Montana over the last two years, 91 percent of child abuse victims know their offenders. More than half of the children are abused by someone related to them.

“That makes it exceptionally hard for them to be able to talk about it,” Widmer said.

Parents and others close to children should know the warning signs of the grooming process that child offenders use to gain the confidence of their victims, said Kiersten Schmitt, Emma’s House child abuse prevention coordinator.

Offenders will look for ways to be alone with a child. They might offer special gifts or attention. They’ll cross boundaries that feel uncomfortable with both the child and the parent.

“When you get that gut feeling that something is wrong with your child, you need to pay attention,” Schmitt said. “If they don’t want to go to a neighbor’s or relative’s home, parents should be willing to listen. That could be sign that something is wrong.”

Mary Vermillion is a registered nurse who works at Emma’s House. Changes in a child’s behavior are something to take note of too.

Poor hygiene, unexplained bruises, fear of a caregiver, pain in private parts, age inappropriate knowledge of sex, unexplained aggression or depression. Any sudden behavior changes in general should be taken into account.

To help ensure that children are able to communicate when something is awry, Vermillion said it’s important that parents have appropriate dialogues about their children’s bodies that include accurate names of body parts.

“If children do need to come forward and communicate that something is occurring, then they will have the words to do it,” she said. “Empower them at an early age so they don’t have to rely on other adults. … If something happens, then they have to venture into a whole new territory of communication.”

Rau said it’s important that parents be willing provide proper supervision, especially when it comes to dealing with issues of technology and digital communication.

If someone suspects child abuse, they can report it by calling the state hot line at 1-866-820-5437.

People in the Bitterroot with questions or concerns can also call Emma’s House. While the facility can’t actually see children onsite without a referral from law enforcement or the state Department of Child and Family Services, Rau said they do take calls and can make referrals to local therapists.

“The reporting piece is important for the adults in kids’ lives,” Widmer said. “It’s their responsibility to keep kids safe. If someone suspects that something isn’t right, they should make the report.”

Hannah Honey