Information is the best safeguard against sexual assault.
That’s what an audience was told Nov. 21 at a meeting to announce a Level III sex offender had moved into their neighborhood.
Snohomish County as a whole has 1,301 registered sex offenders, according to Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office statistics dated Nov. 7, 2002. Of those, 71 are Level III offenders, meaning they are highly dangerous and likely to reoffend.
Mill Creek has eight sex offenders registered with the SCSO, and Bothell has 17. There are 92 sex offenders in the county that are no longer required to register with the sheriff’s office, and 20 are known to be homeless.
Officials encourage people to keep an eye out for all suspicious behavior because many sex offenders have not yet been caught, have not undergone treatment, or are milling about without being registered with the sheriff’s office. Many who are registered as sex offenders have undergone treatment. Sex offenders who undergo treatment are statistically less likely to reoffend than those who have not yet been caught. Treatment teaches offenders to distance themselves from children in order to avoid situations where they will be tempted to reoffend, officials say.
Experts say the risk of assault can be reduced if a child learns about sex, and about sex offenders in an age-appropriate way, and is chaperoned by a trusted adult.
“Don’t leave your children unattended anywhere,” said Dave Coleman, detective in the Registered Sex Offender and Kidnapping unit of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in the Nov. 21 meeting announcing a second Level III sex offender had registered to live in a Mill Creek area home.
Coleman described an incident where a woman was walking to her car with her two children with her, in a parking lot. Her infant was in a shopping cart, and her toddler was standing behind her about three or four feet away. A sex offender approached the toddler and picked him up, and the woman turned around to confront him. The offender was startled and put the boy down, but the incident shows how quickly an offender can act.
The best defense, said Pamela Coffell, legal advocate specialist at the Providence Sexual Assault Center, is good communication between adults and children in their care. Coffell encouraged parents to teach their children about sexuality so that they know the proper terminology to use if someone touches them inappropriately.
“What offenders tell us is ‘show me a child who knows nothing about sex and I’ll show you my next victim,’” Coffell said.
She said in one case, a child who was sexually abused described the incident as “He pet my kitty.” She noted that if a child said that to an adult who didn’t know the child’s lingo, that adult might respond by saying “that’s OK.” Another child told investigators “Peter Pan touched my butterfly” and interviewers did not know what the child meant. That kind of communication can damage investigators chances of convicting the perpetrator.
“Children need to have appropriate names for their body parts,” Coffell said.
She added that children need to be given the permission to say “no” to adults. And, they need a trusted adult whom they can open up to who is not their parent.
That’s where the tricky part of prevention comes in. Coffell said stranger abductions are rare. A parent is told to assure their child is being chaperoned by a trusted adult, but a potential sex offender attempts to become a trusted adult when grooming his or her victims.
“85 to 90 percent (of sex abuse victims) are abused by a family member or possibly the person sitting across from you at the Christmas dinner table,” Coffell said.
Sex offenders not only groom their victims they groom the families and communities around that victim, Coffell said.
An offender will choose a family that is stressed and vulnerable — such as a single mom with money problems — then will come into the situation to be the good guy and help out.
“Be aware of a person who is too good to be true,” Coffell said. She added, “I’m not saying everyone who’s like that is a sex offender.”
She also said that when warning children about an actual sex offender, children do not need all the details of sex offense that occurred, Coffell said. They do need to know that when a sex offender is released into the community that he or she is a dangerous person and has hurt children in the past.
And she said to keep the lines of communication open.
“When you talk to your children, don’t talk to them just one time,” Coffell said.