Unlikely Suspects: Predators in Disguise

Man on computerOne year ago, Daniel A. Woolverton, 35, was known as a father, a husband, a U.S. Army Lawyer, and a West Point Graduate.  Today, he is known among his neighbors, peers and kin as a pedophile, receiving a 37-year sentence for forcible sodomy with an infant.  When the FBI executed a search warrant, they uncovered more than 30,000 images of child pornography and more than 1,000 videos, mostly of toddlers and infants, being sexually abused.  Woolverton also made and distributed child pornography, videotaping, uploading and sharing his abuse of a several month-old boy.  His wife, another US Army lawyer claims to have no knowledge of these events of her husband’s huge collection of child sexual abuse images.

Every week, a new case emerges of a lawyer, doctor, clergyman, teacher or other “outstanding” citizen who has secretly been engaging in outrageous and horrific acts of child sexual abuse.  In the vast majority of these cases, the individual has had easy and anonymous access to a smorgasbord of child sexual abuse images (child pornography) through the Internet, images and videos depicting abused children ranging in age from infants to teens. This material merely whets the appetite and fuels the desire to act out sexually against an actual child.

More often than not, the abuse could have been prevented if parents, educators, clinicians and institutions were educated and empowered with prevention information.   The common perception of an “Internet predator”, “pedophile”, or “child pornographer” is that of a shadowy, unkempt, jobless, scary-looking man in a trench coat, sulking on the outskirts of a school playground.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, they dwell among us, hidden in plain sight: it is very difficult to recognize a disguised predator or a pedophile.  FBI statistics have demonstrated that these individuals usually blend well into society, are usually clean-cut and outwardly law abiding, appear trusting to both parents and children and can often rise to be a pillar of society while actively pursuing children.  These people do not look like your worst nightmare, but they are.

In filming our Internet Safety 101SM DVD series, I interviewed a convicted sex offender serving a 45-year sentence in a high-security prison.  “John Doe”, as we refer to him in our film, had been a well-respected award-winning teacher in his community.  Parents loved and trusted him with their children.  He had a solid family life and a wife who loved him.  But, after getting bored with adult pornography online, “John” came across child pornography, (child pornography is cross-marketed with adult porn online), leading him down a rabbit hole of into criminal behavior.  He began to communicate with youth in online chatrooms, pretending to be whoever he thought the youth wanted him to be.

“In a period of a day in a three-hour period of time that I spent online I would probably talk to 25 children.  When I would have initial contact with any individual, it would be my goal to find out what type of person it is that they were looking to speak to. So if it was a 13 or 14-year-old boy who was interested in speaking to a 13 or 14-year-old female, then I would be that female. There are millions of pictures online that you can download and send as far as this is who I am.” –“John Doe”

In 2005, this honored community member was charged with 24 counts of child abuse and exploitation involving 20 boys.

Parents, educators and all concerned adults have the responsibility of protecting children from both on- and offline abuse.  We strongly recommend that every institution, faith-based organization, and every parent go through comprehensive child abuse prevention training.  Our Internet Safety 101SM program educates, equips and empowers adults to protect their children from online abuses.  Other groups like Darkness2Light have wonderful programs focused on preventing offline child sexual abuse.

Some simple steps from our site and also from our friends at Darkness2Light include:

  • Minimize the opportunity for abuse by eliminating or reducing one-adult/one-child situations.   Organizations that your child is a part of should have a policy about this and should train their staff and volunteers to recognize and react to child sexual abuse.
  • Meet the adults in contact with your children!  Even if you have heard good things about them—abusers are incredibly manipulative and are often times well-respected members of the community.  They will become friendly with your family and try to earn your trust.
  • Research indicates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually victimized before adulthood; sadly, 30-40% of these victims are abused by a family member and 50% are abused by someone outside the family whom they know and trust.  Although the majority of this child sexual abuse does not occur online, in the Internet age, offline sex abuse is fueled by pedophiles’ unprecedented access to child pornography and exacerbated as perpetrators post pictures online of their exploits.
  • Talk with your child when they return from spending time with any adult—pay attention to your child’s mood and note whether the child can tell you with confidence how the time was spent.
  • If you do allow your child to spend along time with an adult, drop by unexpectedly—this applies even to trusted family members.
  • Talk to your child about sex and their bodies.    Ask specific questions and understand how children communicate.  If they do tell you anything alarming or even joke about something inappropriate, do not overreact and take them seriously.  (More information on communicating with your children here.)
  • Monitor your children’s online and mobile interactions—know whom they communicate with, and install filtering and monitoring software on your computers, gaming and mobile devices (See our list of monitoring and filtering software).
  • Be aware of warning signs of Internet grooming. (Read more about grooming here)
  • If you child confides in you about inappropriate behavior (verbal or physical), believe your child. Abused children rarely lie and are often blackmailed or groomed into silence.
  • If you suspect your child has been abused call the Cybertipline immediately at 1-800-843-5678.

Our children’s innocence is worth fighting for!  It’s all about Prevention and we are here to help.  Together, we can make a difference!

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