On two occasions, I’ve worked with men who were later convicted of child sexual abuse offenses. One of them shocked me; the other didn’t. Now, as my husband and I prepare for the birth of our first child, the question I’ve asked before has become more demanding: How can we help our child navigate a world in which it will inevitably meet people who want to harm it?
I met the first perpetrator when I was 16, working my first job as a dishwasher at my uncle’s restaurant. Every Saturday night for one summer, I spent eight hours hauling stacks of dishes out of an industrial washer. When I left my shifts, I smelled deep-fried, but I was proud of earning my own small paychecks.
Kevin was a prep cook in the kitchen. He was 29 and had a tattoo of a barking dog on his arm. I couldn’t explain why — I had no experience with men because of my religious upbringing — but Kevin made me uncomfortable. I avoided making eye contact with him. If he came into the break room when I was alone, I left. None of my coworkers seemed to have the same reaction. Kevin seemed generally well-liked in the kitchen, and I felt bad for feeling weird around him. What was my problem?
Then Kevin threw a knife at me across a kitchen counter one night. It spun toward me and came to a stop near the edge of the counter. When I looked up, Kevin’s expression was one of nervous exhilaration. That look tipped his hand: Scaring girls excited him. Unwilling to give him the satisfaction of seeing how startled I was, I picked up the knife and added it to my pile of dishes.
I doubled down on avoiding Kevin and didn’t feel as guilty about it. At the end of the summer, I found another after-school job. Seven months later, Kevin kidnapped a 16-year-old girl in March 2003. In September of that year, Kevin snatched a 14-year-old, whom he sexually assaulted. Both crimes went unsolved. In April 2004, a 5-year-old girl disappeared while traveling to a friend’s house on her Barbie scooter. She was found the next day in a neglected warehouse. Kevin had sexually assaulted her, bound her with duct tape, hidden her beneath a tarp and left her in the freezing cold. A year after the 2004 abduction and rescue, police interviewed Kevin about another molestation, and one of the officers linked Kevin with his previous crimes. According to the detective, Kevin admitted he had “problems like this with girls,” and confessed to kidnapping all three girls.
The next year, I met a second coworker who was later convicted of child sexual abuse crimes. Matt and I were interns at the same company. For one summer, we sat next to each other. On paper, Matt resembled other peers on whom I’d had crushes: He was tall, blond and had a dry sense of humor. However, we became work friends instead, mostly talking about our projects and school.
A few years ago, I wondered what happened to Matt and Googled him. That’s how I learned that a national sting operation had investigated him and found that he owned and distributed more than 10,000 images and videos of child pornography. In 2012, Matt was sentenced to five years in prison.
Matt’s crimes upset me in different ways than Kevin’s. I knew Kevin made me uneasy, though I couldn’t anticipate his cruelty. In contrast, I sat next to Matt for hundreds of hours with no inkling that he harbored an unhealthy interest in children. During that summer, I’m sure I mentioned my five younger siblings. The fact that I had no suspicions about Matt rattled my confidence in my judgment.
My husband, Ryan, and I are expecting our first child. After struggling with unexplained infertility for two years and a miscarriage, my gratitude for this surprise pregnancy mingles with occasional concern that our child could still be harmed or taken from us.
Early in my pregnancy, I had dinner with a friend who has two daughters. I told her about Kevin and Matt, and asked her how parents should raise children in a sometimes dangerous world.
“Never, ever leave them alone or let them out of our sight,” she joked.
We laughed. If only it were so simple. If only it were possible to hide our children from the world without stunting them emotionally or driving ourselves to the brink of paranoia.
On a warm day when I was about 12 years old, I was sitting on the front porch at home while two of my younger sisters played down the street with neighbor kids. I could hear them laughing and hollering with their friends as I picked up the morning newspaper. The front-page article that day included the confession of a man who raped and murdered a local girl my age and two other children. As I read the graphic transcript, I was struck by the killer’s indifference to his victims, and I felt a rising panic about people’s capacity for brutality.
My siblings were the first people I loved more than myself, the first people for whom I would have died. That also made them the first people I really worried about. Suddenly afraid that someone would snatch them, too, I yelled down the road for them to come home, just to have them close.
But my over-protectiveness was unnecessary. Our mom was home, my sisters were playing with other kids in a safe, public space and their friends’ parents and older siblings were supervising them. It’s natural to be scared of harm coming to people we love, but it’s ineffectual to make our anxieties their anxieties by holding them back from positive experiences when there are few true risks.
As soon-to-be parents, Ryan and I want to make smart decisions for our kids, not render them immobilized by fear. Starting from birth, we have a duty to instill in them the ability to identify threats and the skills to protect themselves, but also the confidence to face the world.
As a public health professional and survivor of childhood verbal and physical abuse, I have both studied and lived some of the long-term impacts of violence. I know that the effects of childhood trauma can be severe and require treatment, yet evidence-based guidelines can help prevent child abuse.
To balance our protectiveness with allowing our children age-appropriate independence, we plan to use sexual abuse risk reduction best practices from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, as well as the Child Welfare League of America’s abuse prevention tips. We must do our best to prepare our kids for the worst of humanity, even though our best feels insufficient.
Ryan and I have created a list of goals we hope to meet for our kids, aimed at preventing different kinds of abuse and building resilience. Some are concrete and straightforward. Others require acknowledging hard truths about our limitations as human beings. None are easy.
- Directly engage with our kids on issues related to violence and sexuality. Hiding from things nurtures fear. Ryan and I have a duty to teach our children the proper, medical names for their anatomy; to answer their questions about sexuality, types of violence and their bodies with age-appropriate honesty; and to teach them how to assert themselves if someone tries to hurt them. People who are well-informed about violence are better equipped to defend themselves.
- Model respect for them and their bodily autonomy. I learned from working with Kevin that it’s important to cultivate and trust your intuition. To teach our kids that they deserve respect and shouldn’t second-guess their guts, Ryan and I want to both tell and show them that their boundaries are important. A small way we hope to demonstrate this is by declining to force our kids to hug or kiss people when they’re not comfortable with it — to teach them that no means no when they say it, and when someone says it to them.
- Demonstrate that most people mean no harm, but that trust still needs to be earned. It’s unhealthy to go through life worrying that everyone wants to hurt you. However, trust needs to be apportioned according to the role that people occupy in your life and how well you know them. That’s why parents have a responsibility to thoroughly vet all potential caregivers. I liked Matt as a coworker and trusted him in that capacity. I would have trusted him with $5 to pick up a bag of chips from the company vending machine, but I’m glad my faith in him didn’t extend to asking him to hang out with my siblings and me.
- Teach them that they can take steps to protect themselves while still having compassion for those who experience violent urges. Fear explains the human instinct to hurt those whom we perceive as threats, but it’s not a justification for acting on it. Ryan and I want to teach our children that they have every right to protect themselves if they’re threatened. At the same time, people with violent predilections are human beings who should have access to psychological services that help prevent them from hurting others and themselves.
- Tell them that if someone did hurt them, it would not be their fault. Our final goal is the most difficult. It means recognizing that terrible things sometimes happen because no one can fully control another person’s actions. Ryan and I hope that our kids will never be assaulted. Still, we need to tell them that if they were attacked, it would be the perpetrator’s fault alone, and they should tell us because nothing can separate them from our love. Similarly, we want to impart that survivors of violence are not damaged goods, but people whose resilience deserves our respect. I know from personal experience that although it’s difficult, it is possible to heal from abuse. Love and acceptance break the power of fear and shame.
One day, our kids will be ready for their own first jobs and paychecks. When they are, I’ll probably remember Kevin and Matt and worry. I’ll need to remind myself that the joys of life are often accompanied by some risk. Growth forces us to slowly loosen our grasping fingers from the illusion of control. As Ryan and I drop our kids off at their new workplaces and they take another step toward adulthood, I hope I’ll have the grace to tell them: Be vigilant, but go where you need to go.
Virgie Townsend is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Check out On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can also sign up here for our newsletter to keep updated, or follow us on Twitter @OnParenting. On Parenting can be found at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.
You might also be interested in: