To truly protect children from sexual predators—on the Internet as well as off—we must consider crucial changes in our thinking, our laws and our tactics.
If We Really Want To Keep Our Children Safe
By Andrew Vachss
Originally published in Parade Magazine, May 2, 1999
Andrew Vachss, a Parade Contributing Editor, is also a lawyer whose only clients are children. For three decades he has seen first–hand the devastation that sexual abuse brings to our most vulnerable citizens, and he has fought to change a system which is doing too little to help. His new novel, "Choice of Evil," published by Knopf, explores the dark world of a new breed of predator, one who celebrates his serial murders online. It is not for children.
In 1996, Stephen Simmons, 43, a convicted child molester, approached Sam Manzie, a disturbed and confused teenager. Over the next year, Simmons allegedly met the boy on several occasions and, prosecutors say, sexually abused him. In the fall of 1997, events took an even more tragic turn when Manzie, then 15, was charged in the sexual assault and murder of another child, Eddie Weiner, 11. Where did this chain of events begin? Where did Simmons meet his alleged victim?
In an Internet chat room.
Predatory pedophiles are experts at camouflage. Virtually all of their approaches to children are made under a benign guise—offering "friendship" or "understanding." For every child molester who leaps out of a van wearing a ski mask to grab a victim, there are thousands whose weapons are deception and guile.
Like all predators, those who sexually abuse children go where there is a plentiful supply of prey. Today, the Internet offers such a supply. For the child molester, approaching a potential victim through the Internet is a lot easier (and less risky) than lingering near a playground. How can we protect our children? Parents are advised to monitor their home computers to make sure their children are not lured into interaction with potentially dangerous strangers. This is laudable and certainly should be done, but it is no certain defense. Neither is patrolling the Internet. It may be the new hunting ground, but it is not the Internet itself we must be most concerned with. What we need to address are the predators.
We must keep in mind that predatory pedophiles stalked, enticed and molested children before cyberspace ever existed. If the entire Internet crashed tomorrow, the predators would still hunt, adapting to the environment as they always do.
The only way to truly protect our children is to understand some basic truths. We need to recognize that child pornography is not "speech"—it is a photograph of a crime, a felony subject to prosecution in all 50 states. It is not protected speech under our Constitution. And neither is the enticement of children for the sexual gratification of adults.
We need to understand our enemy. The essential characteristics of a predatory pedophile are: They like what they do, they do it because they want to, and they will continue to do it until incapacitated.
We need to understand that predatory pedophiles are superb diagnosticians. They can sense vulnerability in children. We need to learn from them—learn how they select their victims, how they approach, how they engage. And everything we learn, we must use against them.
We need to radically decrease the predators' chances of success. One of their major camouflage techniques, for example, is to describe any same–sex child molestation as "gay." This is a lie and a disguise. But if we believe this deception, if we ostracize all gay youth as potential offenders, we drive them into the only "caring" arms open to them. Every such loss is a tragedy.
We need to adopt tactics that do more than merely reflect our moral outrage but that actually work. Teenagers are natural cynics. There is strong peer pressure not to be a "chump." Adolescents don't need morality lectures, they need to be shown the predators' techniques so they can help protect themselves.
We need to spend money for anti–pedophile police and prosecution units. And for therapists who can work the delicate balance between rebuilding a traumatized child and preparing that same child to testify in court.
If we want to decrease the victimization of our children, we must increase our commitment to them. We know what to do. We know what it would cost. The question is whether we are willing to pay. And, as always, kids don't get a vote. It's up to us.
More Needs To Be Done
Radical changes need to be made to our criminal justice system if we are to protect our children from predators—online and off. Write to your legislators, talk to your law–enforcement agencies and organize a community campaign to get these changes made. We need to:
INCREASE THE PENALTIES for all "enticement" crimes aimed at children, including attempts. And such penalties should be enhanced when the perpetrator had prior convictions, used "camouflage" (as in a chat room) or abused a position of trust (such as teacher, counselor or coach).
CHANGE THE LABELING of predatory behavior. The criminal justice system characterizes the enticement of children for sexual abuse—indeed, any sexual abuse short of forcible rape—as a "nonviolent" crime (as if a child could somehow be "nonviolently violated"). The fact that the predator does not use physical violence to achieve his or her ends does not mean the crime does not have a horribly violent, traumatic effect. Ask any competent therapist. Or any victim.
DETER ENABLERS by hitting them in the pocketbook. The law must impose strict liability on organizations, agencies and institutions that negligently expose children to predators. This should include the public, private, volunteer and religious sectors. That liability must be expanded to include instances when pedophiles are "recycled" after agreeing to treatment and put back into positions of trust. If an organization decides such an individual is "cured" and returns him to a different program or community without disclosing his prior history to the parents, that organization should be held accountable for any harm which results.
EMPTY THE PRISONS of genuinely nonviolent offenders and fill the vacancies with child–sex predators. These predators have, up to now, enjoyed probation and short sentences. Once we have them where they belong, we must keep them there longer.
The Warning Signs
How can you tell if your child has been accosted by a pedophile? He or she may show warning signs, such as:
depression and sudden lack of interest in activities.
Also watch for inappropriate demands for a child's time by a teacher, coach or "big brother," especially if the adult shows anger at being excluded from contact with the child, buys the child expensive gifts, or insists on taking him or her alone on trips.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The FBI offers a free brochure, A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety. Download it from the FBI's Web site or contact your nearest FBI office and request a copy from the Crimes Against Children Coordinator.
The National Registry
The FBI's National Sex Offender Registry—a computerized database of convicted pedophiles—is slated to be operating by midsummer 1999, making background checks almost instantaneously available to law–enforcement agencies. This means that any organization allowing a person on the registry to have access to children should be held accountable if a child is harmed. No excuses.
State participation in the registry is voluntary, however. If your state is not taking part, urge your legislators to do so. Once predatory pedophiles are caught and convicted, what they must lose, forever, is their right to hide.
It Started Online
The events which would lead to a child's murder began when a teenager met a pedophile in an Internet chat room. Predatory pedophiles go where the victims are, says the author, and now that may be online.
Edward Werner, 11, of Jackson Township, NJ, set out to sell gift wrap and candy door–to–door in his neighborhood for a school group on September 27, 1997. Two days later, he was found dead in a wooded area nearby.
Samuel Manzie, then 15, has admitted strangling Werner. In the previous year, it is alleged, Manzie was sexually assaulted several times by a man he met on the Internet.
Stephen Simmons, then 43, of Holbrook NY, allegedly met Manzie in an Internet chat room, then enticed him to meet in person at a mall. On several occassions, prosecutors charge, Simmons took the boy to motels for sex.
© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Andrew Vachss has been writing for Parade since 1985. In response to endless requests, we have collected all his past Parade articles here.