Experts say families need to discuss Internet usage, safety issues
SHELBURNE – Ken Wooden learned most of what he knows from convicted child molesters.
Using the information he collected through two decades of interviews with hundreds of child predators as an investigative journalist, Wooden now runs a business in Shelburne called Child Lures Prevention. He travels throughout the country teaching children and young adults how to ward off pedophiles and others who look to prey upon them.
"I've taught a couple hundred thousand kids across the country," said Wooden, who was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize – once as a Chicago Sun Times writer and again as a book author. "I've done my research and I was trained as a teacher."
When asked to speak at a conference in Washington D.C. on the matter in 2002, he had one question for federal officials.
"If predators are using lures, shouldn't we be teaching our children about them?"
Wooden's interest in child predators began when he took a job as a fingerprint classifier with the New Jersey police as a young man. Each week he would nab up to 12 pedophiles among the people looking to qualify to drive a school bus, who were required to be fingerprinted.
Later as a journalist gathering information, Wooden unearthed the Pedophile Information Exchange – or PIE. The Web site had a feature called 'lure of the week,' according to Wooden. He cited one example where the use of soap crayons – artistic bath-time items – was suggested as an easy, fun way to get children to disrobe.
When asking the molesters he interviewed how they targeted children, most explained they would go to playgrounds and look for the loners. According to Wooden, that tactic is used by predators on the Internet, as well. In both situations there is one question that predators told Wooden they would ask the child – "How do your parents get along?"
"If you want to protect your child from Internet predators, I suggest you go over what moments are all about," said Wooden, referring to those times that highlight a family and relationships.
Explaining moments – of anger, frustration, happiness, sorrow, etc. – to a child can be a weapon against predators. Those looking to prey will use what appears to be a weak relationship as a crowbar to separate parents from their children, according to Wooden.
Open communication with children is important, explained Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, who has spoken to numerous groups about Internet safety for children. There are three important factors Schirling stresses about Internet safety to parents and children.
"Parents should know what their kids are doing online, they should be involved," he said of the first factor. "It's always eye-opening when we do safety presentations with parents. They don't realize the scope and depth of what is going on in the online world."
A second important point: Computers should be in a public place, not in a bedroom or behind a closed door.
"It eliminates the chance of kids making potentially bad choices," said Schirling, emphasizing the third point.
"They should never meet anyone they meet online without parents being present – not just with their permission, but being present."
While working with parents and children, Wooden also focuses on three majors points: People are like weather, teach the law, and use your gut instinct – or "siren in the belly."
"For the most part weather is safe… and sometimes there is dangerous weather," he said, explaining his lure prevention program on Tuesday from his Shelburne business.
As with tornadoes, hurricanes and thunderstorms – or bad weather – there are warning signs, which is the same with sexual predators.
"I'd rather have them afraid and worried about people versus totally trusting," said Debra Sargent, a counselor who works with victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of children.
She points out that people who are sexually abusive typically look to isolate their victims.
"You don't go with people you know not well enough, alone," said Sargent, adding that there is no such thing as a typical-looking predator. "It could be the music teacher, grocer, baseball coach, uncle… Any one of those people, it could be none of them."
Through his years of research, Wooden found that describing the typical sexual molester wasn't possible.
"Most of these guys I've interviewed are good-looking con artists," said Wooden, adding that statistics show one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused.
Sexual predators can be from across class or economic levels, ethnicity groups, education levels and any age. A large percentage of predators are teens, according to Wooden's information. Sargent explains that almost all predators have been victims themselves at one time.
"We teach children the concept of luring," said Wooden. "We also teach the concept of law."
In his research, Wooden found that the incidents of molestation and pedophilia were not rising as quickly as the incidence of threats that accompanied the behavior. Most predators will threaten harm to a child or their family member in order to manipulate the victim into compliance.
"If someone ever threatens to harm you or your little brother or your mom and dad, that is a serious felony," Wooden said in pointing out his approach with children – from preschool through graduate school.
He explained that most professionals who require certification or a license to practice must maintain a clean record. When children understand their rights and the consequences someone will undergo by making threats, it empowers them. In fact, Wooden said, many of the sexual predators he spoke with had admitted to not being successful with children who had been trained against their lures.
"I don't think there's a one-shot solution," said Mark Moody, School Resource Officer in the Montpelier School District. "It's pieces of the puzzle in communities that make things work right."
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