In­side the mind of a child sex preda­tor

To keep our kids safe, Karen must delve into a preda­tor’s psy­che

that's life (Australia) - - Contents - Karen Owen, 55, Mel­bourne, Vic

The words chilled me to the core. ‘Put me in a school­yard and I can tell you ev­ery kid who’s been abused or is open to abuse in five min­utes,’ the pris­oner told me.

As a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist work­ing in jails with high­risk child sex of­fend­ers, I thought I’d heard it all.

But this was some­thing else.

And it made me even more com­mit­ted to my job.

To keep our com­mu­ni­ties safe and pro­tect our kids, I had to delve deep into the minds of these preda­tors.

The cold, hard re­al­ity was that one day, these men would be back on the streets.

How do we stop them cre­at­ing more vic­tims?

I thought, de­ter­mined. Start­ing my ca­reer as a men­tal health nurse, I no­ticed pa­tients who ex­hib­ited in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual be­hav­iours. Why? I thought.

So I went back to uni to study psy­chol­ogy.

Help­ing to launch Aus­tralia’s first sex of­fender treat­ment pro­gram in Vic­to­rian pris­ons, I worked with con­victed men, and some­times women. And I re­alised very quickly that news head­lines about creepy trench coat-wear­ing pae­dophiles loi­ter­ing in parks were a dan­ger­ous trap. It was im­pos­si­ble to pin­point ex­actly who a child sex per­pe­tra­tor might be.

Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, only 10 per cent are strangers to their vic­tims.

Who are the other 90 per cent then?

Scar­ily, most of­fend­ers were some­one a child knew and had reg­u­lar con­tact with.

To pro­tect our kids, we had to teach them early on to trust their own in­tu­ition.

‘Give your un­cle a kiss!’ I’d hear par­ents tell lit­tlies.

But mums and dads need to stop forc­ing kids to kiss and cud­dle ev­ery adult who comes through the door.

Kids are used to do­ing what they’re told and preda­tors rely on this. They also de­pend on a code of si­lence.

‘It’s be­cause you’re spe­cial,’ a per­pe­tra­tor will tell a kid. ‘But don’t tell Mummy and Daddy.’

If the child agrees to keep the se­cret, that gives a preda­tor a green light to be­gin the groom­ing process.

Your child needs to know they can tell you any­thing. Each night, aw­ful things

I’d heard would roll over in my head. Then, af­ter 11 years in the prison sys­tem, I be­gan my own pri­vate prac­tice where courts had me as­sess child sex of­fend­ers to gauge the risk they’d pose if re­leased.

It was a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity and I’d al­ways err on the side of cau­tion.

I also en­coun­tered men who’d never acted on in­ap­pro­pri­ate thoughts, but felt like they were about to.

‘I need help,’ they’d plead, pet­ri­fied they’d hurt a child.

One, in his early 20s, had

‘It’s be­cause

you’re spe­cial…don’t tell Mummy or


been sud­denly dumped by his high-school sweet­heart.

Lonely, he be­gan search­ing the net for pornog­ra­phy and grad­u­ally looked at more and more ob­scene ma­te­rial.

Driv­ing home one day, he pulled over and found him­self star­ing at young girls wait­ing at a bus stop.

Snap­ping out of it, he started the car and drove away, des­per­ate to find help.

‘I ter­ri­fied my­self,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to hurt any­one.’

So I taught him strate­gies to avoid sit­u­a­tions where he risked abus­ing chil­dren and to de­velop em­pa­thy.

As I un­der­stood how preda­tors ma­nip­u­lated kids, I also worked with vic­tims who made al­le­ga­tions of abuse.

Hor­ri­fy­ingly, one lit­tle boy who was sex­u­ally as­saulted in the bath said he was play­ing fire­men with his abuser, who kept re­fer­ring to his pe­nis as his ‘fire pole’.

In court, the de­fence lawyer ar­gued the boy was play­ing with a toy fire pole.

Sadly, the per­pe­tra­tor walked free as it was im­pos­si­ble to prove that the crime had taken place be­yond rea­son­able doubt.

It’s why it’s so im­por­tant we teach chil­dren to name their body parts prop­erly.

A pe­nis is a pe­nis and a vagina is a vagina.

Af­ter a while, I had to stop work­ing with kids as, for me, it made it near im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand an of­fender.

I want to reach across the ta­ble and slap you! I’d think.

But, as dif­fi­cult as it was, I had to keep my cool in or­der to keep our kids safe.

It can be dif­fi­cult to deal with, but thank­fully I work with my friend, Bea, a fel­low psy­chol­o­gist.

‘Are you okay?’ she’ll say. ‘Yes,’ I’ll lie, a mil­lion things on my mind.

‘Bull,’ she’ll call me out, get­ting me to talk it through.

Af­ter 30 years work­ing in this field, I don’t think an of­fender can be ‘cured’.

Still, I do think it’s pos­si­ble to help them to avoid hurt­ing a de­fence­less child.

And that’s what keeps me go­ing.

I work with con­victed per­pe­tra­tors to try and find an­swers

Teach chil­dren to name their body partsprop­erly

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