Its the devil you know.
According to national studies, as many as 93 percent of victims of childhood sexual or physical abuse were harmed by someone they knew.
Its not the mythological bogey man in the bushes by the elementary school who poses the greatest risk to our children. It is the coach, the parent, the grandparent, the baby sitter.
We never believe that someone we know and trust can be the person who perpetrates on our children, said Huntington County Prosecutor Amy Richison, who has prosecuted dozens of sex offenders and child abusers in her career. So you protect the children from strangers, not the people they know.
But sometimes we do know them, and we know what they do or have done in the past.
In her 15 years as a prosecutor, Richison believes no more than 5 percent of child abuse cases, sexual or otherwise, involved someone not known to the victim.
Not only are the perpetrators known to the victims, she said, often their behavior had been suspected or known for years.
And she is angry at the inability or unwillingness of families to look at the danger posed by potential abusers in their midst.
I get really upset because so often it really doesnt come as a surprise to people, she said. Or I should say it shouldnt come as a surprise.
If its been talked about in your family, then why in the world , she asked, letting the question hang in the air.
Ed Periera, a Marion-based social worker who counsels victims and perpetrators alike, said the abuse suffered within families can cause distorted thinking that makes further abuse possible.
He hears stories from parents who themselves were abused by their parents who are shocked to find out that the grandparents molested the grandchildren.
The original victim, the parent, often believes that the abuse happened to them because they are different somehow. So they keep it a secret and dont see it as a real possibility to others in the family, Periera said.
A sexual offender can move within this family with impunity because nobody is telling on him. Also theres this distorted belief that Im the only one, he said.
The rationalization often centers on gender, Richison said.
The victim believes the family member who abused wont abuse a child of a different gender, failing to account for the fact that often child sexual abuse is not based on gender but on the age of the child, she said.
Theyre attracted to children, she said.
Whom kids know
In December 2005, 33-year-old Simon Rios abducted 10-year-old Alejandra Gutierrez as she walked to her Fort Wayne school. The little girl was a classmate of one of his daughters. He sexually assaulted her, killed her and dumped her body in rural Delaware County. Days later, he killed his entire family – a wife and their three young daughters.
Now, six years later, 39-year-old Michael L. Plumadore is accused of murdering 9-year-old Aliahna Lemmon, a neighbor girl for whom he was baby-sitting. Before police even knew she was missing, Plumadore allegedly cut up her body and put her head, hands and feet in the freezer in his mobile home. On Dec. 26, Allen County police arrested Plumadore after they say he confessed to killing the little girl and told them where to find her remains.
Aliahnas mother, grandmother and other family members were adamant in the days leading up to the grisly discovery that they had no reason not to trust him.
Plumadore lived with Aliahnas late grandfather, a registered sex offender, and often baby-sat for Aliahna and her sisters. In the days leading up to Christmas, Plumadore watched the girls while Aliahna mother recovered from an illness.
Rachel Tobin-Smith, executive director of SCAN (Stop Child Abuse and Neglect), said that people often pay more attention to who watches over their money than who watches over their children.
We need to be concentrating on who our children know and that we know them, she said.
The high percentage of children who know their abusers is often an uncomfortable fact for people to accept, Periera said.
That 93 percent is a number that people dont want to embrace because then they have to think differently, Periera said. They feel they have to be scared, but its not about scared, its about being protective.
Too many, though, are in denial.
People believe that their circle is different than the circle in which sexual abuse happens, Richison said. People dont want to believe, when it comes to them personally, that the people they know and trust would hurt their children.
Children are conditioned to trust adults. And for some reason adults are conditioned to almost always believe other adults over children, Richison said.
The sad thing is that children are really more credible than adults because they are not trained liars, she said. Do children lie? Yes. But theyre not good at it, but theyre not skilled at it. Why are we as a society inclined to believe the person that is a skilled liar over the person who is not?
People are more likely to lie to get out of trouble themselves than to get someone else into trouble, regardless of age, Richison said.
In his practice and experience, Periera finds that rarely do the abusers ever readily admit what theyve done, even when caught.
And if you have one or two family members defending the abuser, they are even less likely to back off their initial denials, he said.
They do so, not because of a fear of the legal consequences of their actions, but because they are worried their friends and family will reject and hate them, Periera said.
Parents must believe their children, even if theres no physical evidence anything occurred, Richison said. When people are abused as children, there is a part of these children that is broken, she said.
Often the way they heal is through family support; they are believed and they get therapeutic intervention.
If they dont have those pieces, then oftentimes they grow up and their children are victims too, she said.