Originally created 05/17/99

Officials: Predators seem normal



Child molesters are nice people.

If there's one thing parents should know about the people most likely to prey on their unsuspecting children, it's that child sex offenders don't look like ugly monsters or fiery demons.

They look like the man standing behind you in the grocery line, the bank teller who cashed your paycheck, the woman who handed you your dry cleaning.

A sexual predator wants to gain a child's trust, so they're less likely to be intimidating, said Patricia Ochieng, sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator for the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault.

"They are the ones who are going to give presents and gifts," Ms. Ochieng said. "Especially with pedophiles, they might see a child in a toy store and start talking to them about the toy or offer to buy it."

No one knows for sure what happened between 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia and William "Junior" Downs, 31, the carpenter who has confessed to molesting and strangling Keenan on April 17 near a North Augusta park. But experts say it is more than likely Keenan was enticed in some way, never putting up a fight -- a scary thought to parents, including Nina O'Mailia, who said Keenan was taught to scream and yell when strangers approached.

"A child molester once asked a little girl to help him find his cat," said Judy Benitez, director of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "That is a child molester's dream -- a child who willingly goes."

The struggle is walking the thin line between instilling a healthy skepticism and teaching kids to be respectful of adults, she said.

Therapists and child advocates encourage the use of signals or code words. A stranger who comes to pick up a child at school and says he was sent by mom or dad should know the code word -- or the child shouldn't go. Parents should stress to children that even a family friend will know the code word in advance.

Most sex offenders are not strangers to the child. They often are relatives or family friends, a neighbor or some acquaintance.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children encourages parents to begin talking to children as soon as they begin talking -- talk about their bodies, how they can protect themselves and how they can always talk about problems.

"I started talking to my children as early as 2 or 3 years old," Ms. Ochieng said. "Teach kids to know their own body parts and when it's OK for someone to touch them -- like when mom or dad is bathing them, but these are the only people who should touch you there."

There are different kinds of touching, and any touch that makes a child feel uncomfortable is a bad touch, said Kevin Kirkpatrick, spokesman for Stop Child Abuse America.

"Teach them they can trust their feelings and their instincts and that it's always OK to ask a trusted adult if you're not sure," he said. "Kids should tell parents about anyone who touches them or if they have been asked to touch someone else. Keep reassuring children that nothing that happens is their fault. Children easily feel a tremendous amount of guilt and fear."

Not only do children need lessons in how to protect themselves, but adults also should know what to say to children they don't know.

"It's really a community thing. If a child approaches you, use that as an opportunity to tell them they shouldn't talk to strangers," Ms. Ochieng said. "You can say, `I'm not bad, but another person might be."'

Meghan Gourley covers crime for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3227 or mgourley@augustachronicle.com.