Can You Spot a Child Molester? Discover the Warning Signs

I know. The question is an odd one: Can you spot a child molester? It’s a particularly odd question for a blog dedicated to nonprofit management, marketing, and fundraising.

So, what’s going on here?

Child by Paolo via FlickrWell, April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. To mark the occasion every year, I devote one blog post that will help you protect your loved ones from a nightmare crime that affects one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys. Fortunately, we can do something about this national tragedy. Let’s begin with how you can recognize child molesters and, then, we’ll look at actions you can take.

Years ago, I served on a jury hearing a child-sex-abuse case. At that time, I knew very little about pedophilia. My knowledge was limited to what I learned through the mainstream press. So, I assumed that most child molesters were priests or guys wearing trench coats and driving unmarked vans. However, during the course of the trial, I learned that about 90 percent of child-sex-abuse victims are molested by someone the child knows (i.e.: a relative, teacher, coach, family friend, etc.).

Because child molesters are usually people known to the child and his or her family and in their circle of trust, it’s often difficult to recognize them for the danger they represent. Fortunately, there are some helpful clues as to who might be a molester. The blog site published a controversial article, “Could You Spot a Paedophile? Here are the Warning Signs.” In the post, veteran crime reporter Candace Sutton identified nine characteristics of a child molester:

1. The Everyman. Child molesters generally do not look like child molesters. If they did, they wouldn’t be very successful pedophiles. Instead, molesters tend to look “normal.” They are often clean cut, respectable citizens. Remember Coach Jerry Sandusky from Penn State University?

“Pedophiles are almost always men, more often married adult males and they work in a very wide range of occupations, from unskilled work up to corporate executives. What to look out for is someone who relates better to children than to adults, and has either very few adult friends or whose friends might also be sex offenders.”

2. Child-Related Workers. While child molesters hold a variety of jobs, many seek professional employment or volunteer opportunities that will bring them into close contact with children. You should not be fearful of all child-related workers. However, you should limit and/or monitor their one-on-one time with children.

“Watch out for teacher adoration beyond the bounds of a normal crush, accompanied by ‘secret’ phone calls and special individual attention.”

3. Happy Snappers. Child molesters often collect photographs and videos of children who are not their own. While they sometimes produce and collect child pornography, many more molesters seem to enjoy images of children who are clothed and engaged in typical childhood activities.

Be cautious around adults who enthusiastically photograph children who are not their own.

4. Close Relatives and Partners. This one is especially tough. Unfortunately, child molesters are often family members. In the child-sex-abuse case I mentioned above, the jury I served on ended up convicting a step-grandfather of sexually abusing his step-grandson.

“The incestuous or family molester is usually an adult male such as the father, stepfather, uncle, grandfather or live-in boyfriend of the mother, who then molests the child or children.”

5. The Gift Giver. Child molesters often “groom” their intended victims by buying them gifts or taking them on special outings, sometimes over a period of years. While molesters will often use coercion and threats, many choose to take the gift-giving approach.

“Beware of toys or gifts from an unknown source turning up in your child’s possession. Pedophiles often like to ‘buy’ your child with presents and often can…”

6. The Always Available Babysitter. While always-available babysitting services may seem like a tremendous convenience, it could actually be a danger sign. For example, the step-grandfather I referenced previously was always available to provide after-school childcare until the mother returned from work.

“Often a single male with no friends, this sort of pedophile will place himself in a situation where he becomes the trusted babysitter, often for the children of several, usually single parent families.”

7. The Internet Groomer. Child molesters use the Internet to learn from other pedophiles about how to find children, how to groom them, and how not to get caught. Internet grooming is a growing problem. Using social media and chat rooms, molesters can make children feel loved and understood. In many cases, the child victim will voluntarily agree to meet the perpetrator. However, this is not to be confused with “consent” which a minor is incapable of providing.

“Pedophiles can still be outcasts and loners, but the Internet is their ideal social tool.”

8. The Damaged. While most victims of child sex abuse do not become molesters themselves, many pedophiles have indeed been victims of abuse or an otherwise chaotic childhood.

“Pedophiles are often the victims of child molestation themselves.”

9. The Good Looking Charmer. Again, if a molester looked scary, they wouldn’t be able to get near children. So, most molesters make an effort to appear respectable. Remember Academy Award winning director Roman Polanski? He’s a confessed child rapist.

“They know how to play upon a child’s need for attention and affection and come across as being helpful and trustworthy.”

Even with the clues I’ve just outlined, it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to spot child molesters. So, if you can’t spot the danger, how can you keep your loved ones safe?

PCAFortunately, the expert staff at the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance wrote “The 10 Tips for Protecting the Children You Love from Sexual Abuse” for Parenting Express Magazine and republished on this site with permission.

I hope you’ll take a few moments to read “The 10 Tips.” Three things, in particular, that you should do are:

  • Make your home a “no secrets zone.”
  • Respect your child’s personal boundaries.
  • Monitor one-on-one situations.

For more information, visit The National Children’s Alliance website.

I hope you will share this post with others, especially parents and teachers. As adults, it’s our collective responsibility to keep children safe. If we don’t take action to prevent abuse, we’re accomplices. So, I urge you to take action today to protect your loved ones and share the information I’ve presented so that others may do the same.

Will you help?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

50 Responses to “Can You Spot a Child Molester? Discover the Warning Signs”

  1. Thank you for recognizing Child Abuse Prevention Month and for sharing these tips. Good job.

  2. Thank you for posting this! It is an outrage that child abuse remains such a silent issue amongst our nation when the number of innocent children who become victims each day is so staggering.

    • Mechilia, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you that a big part of the problem is that child abuse remains a “silent issue.” The more we talk about it and shine a spotlight on it, the harder it will be for perpetrators to harm children. In my young days, drunk driving was commonplace. Then, Mothers Against Drunk Driving came along and started a national dialogue about the danger of driving while drunk. As a result, drunk driving is a fraction of what it once was. I believe the same can happen with child abuse.

  3. Fortunately, thanks to Jerry Sandusky’s issues, PA instituted new rules for background checks for people who work with or volunteer with kids. Everyone doing so in PA has to get new background checks by July 1. This goes for schools, churches, nonprofits and other community groups.

    Even though I got a set of clearances to coach youth softball last year I had to get a new set of the same clearances to coach youth softball again this year. While schools and others are saying this is a burden to track clearances for so many volunteers, it is definitely for the common good.

    • Dave, thank you for your comment and sharing the link. I agree with you that a little temporary inconvenience to help keep children safe from a life-affecting horror seems to be a reasonable trade-off. I’d like to see other states adopt similar procedures BEFORE they have their own Sandusky-scandal.

  4. Was molested by my adopted father as a child. Have never fully recovered and most likely will not. You just do the best you can to place appropriate boundaries. Trusting self and trusting others appropriately and feeling worthy of any love are the two big issues. The biggest piece of damage a molester does is not only the violation of a child’s sexual development, but the damage to their sense of identity, trust and self worth. Recovery is life long.

    • MR, thank you for bravely sharing your heartbreaking story. What many people fail to understand is that child sexual abuse affects its victims throughout their entire lives. I applaud your strength as you continue to cope with and overcome your childhood experience. I wish you the best.

    • My adoptive father molested me too. I get really angry at the system that failed me. I only had 2 people in my life that cared for me, My little brother and sister that came with me to the U.S. from Colombia. When I told the authorities about the abuse. I was not believed, and sent away to keep me silent. My abuser is rocket scientist type smart, beloved teacher and pillar of the community who would give you the shirt off his back. Unfortunately he would also probably molest your child if he could find a way to get away with it. My adoptive father is the smartest, most charming friendly kind and interesting person I have ever met, when he is around others. That is why I don’t completely blame those who refused to listen to me. I have to admit, that if I didn’t know him the way I do, I wouldn’t believe it either. He knows he will never be caught because there is no one as smart as him , who would ever try to catch him. Mothers be wary, my adoptive father is the greatest husband a woman could ever ask for. My adoptive mother was treated like a queen, Except for cheating on her with their own adoptive daughter.

      • Maritza, thank you for bravely sharing your story. I’m so sorry for what you have experienced. Your story underscores a number of problems faced by children who have been victimized. It’s not surprising that incident report rates remain low as do conviction rates. I hope you have at least been able to get the mental-health support that you might have needed and wanted. Stay strong. Your willingness to share your story will be a help to others. Again, thank you!

  5. Michael, I am glad that you took the initiative to post this important information, but unfortunately, I am torn by it, as I was an early childhood educator for many years early in my career, and I not only saw the affects of molestation on children, but I also know too well how well meaning people will jump to conclusions, especially about a man working with young children. I loved the children I worked with and acted as a positive role model for them, especially those from single parent households. That was in the 80’s, shortly after the McMartin Day School case in California that started a national paranoia about men who worked with children, and then years later, the “victims” admitted that the molestation never took place. It destroyed the lives of those accused.

    I do recall a situation at one center I worked at, where a young girl who was being molested by parent or grandparent, I can’t remember which at this moment. She propositioned me better than the single women I met in bars, and when I reported it to the Director of the center, I was let go for drinking coffee outside while waiting for my class to come out for an Easter egg hunt. I also worked for a national childcare company that had an “unwritten rule” that men were not allowed to work with children under a certain age, and it made several attempts to find a reason to get rid of me. I finally left the field I loved because I could not put up with treatment I received.

    While I appreciate the need to prevent child molestation, I know from experience that some well meaning people can ruin the lives of innocent people.

    • Richard, thank you for commenting and sharing your experiences. You’ve made a couple of excellent points: 1) We need rational rules for those working with children. 2) We need to ensure that allegations of abuse are properly investigated to minimize the risk of false accusations gaining traction.

      Stupid rules are, well, stupid. What we need are simple, rational rules based on human behavior and science. For example, banning men from working with or caring for small children makes little sense. Men are not necessarily child molesters while women can be. So, how would such a rule keep children safe? Instead, for example, a rule that requires the presence of two adults with children makes much more sense.

      While incidents of false accusations of abuse are extremely rare, they nevertheless happen. Such accusations are certainly very serious, even if uncommon. To minimize the risk of false accusations while ensuring that prosecutors have what they need to prosecute legitimate cases, skilled forensic interviewing must be part of the investigative process. Child Advocacy Centers, accredited by the National Children’s Alliance, work with law enforcement and local child welfare departments to provide this service. Skilled forensic interviewers know how to speak with children of varying ages to gather information in a non-leading way. Unfortunately, the daycare case in California that you cited was poorly investigated. If professional forensic interviewers had been involved, the outcome would likely have been very different.

      We need to expand the public dialogue on this issue for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the need to develop sane rules for the care of children and the need for ensuring access to skilled forensic interviewers in every community.

    • Innocent Adults can better effectively make their case and defend themselves if someone is telling lies (sexual abuse accusations) that could ruin them. Innocent children cannot so effectively make their case and defend themselves when someone is sexually abusing them, or telling lies like that the sexual abuse never happened. That WILL ruin the child with a certainty. Child sexual abuse accusations are rarely 100% uniquivicly false. Unfortunately there have been some. We have to sometimes face these difficult decisions, Potentially making the rest of this innocent grown man’s/ woman’s life a living hell, or potentially making an innocent child continue to live in the living hell, in which they already have been living in for who knows how long. I, as an unbelieved child victim of sexual abuse, may be bais, but I would prefer, since I am stronger and an adult that you roll the dice with my life and well being before rolling the dice and well being of an inocente child.

    • People whose’ lives are ruined in this way, to me, are considered indirect victims. It adds to the anger I feel towards child molesters. Good men like you are important in childrens’ social development. I am torn in this difficult situation, but I have to admit that men should be allowed to work with children, so that children can see examples of what healthy and normal interactions are appropriate with males. Boys also learn from example how normal men behave. Children do need positive male roll models. My adoptive father was a terrible male roll model to my little brother. He really messed him up. My little brother struggled horribly and didn’t know how a normal healthy man should act or live. My little brother didn’t survive. He’s been dead for a long time now. He had a wonderful heart. That is what kept him from becoming the monster our adoptive father could have made him. I am so sorry that some bad rotten decomposed apples have ruined it for the outstanding ones like yourself.

    • I have to say the proposition thing, makes me wonder. So many child molesters, including my adoptive father say and may even feel that their child victims are at fault because the child supposedly came onto and seduced them. My adoptive father even one time, when being told he was forgiven for being a horrible father, kind of cried and blubbered, “When you kids came here (to the U.S.), flailing your crotches at me, I didn’t know what to do!” Well, I know what he did. He molested me. We did not flail our crotches at him. We were pretty resistant of our adoptive father sometimes even our adoptive mother. We were afraid of them and would kick and bite. We thought we had been kidnapped by these foreigners. When kids play they do flail about without caring if their undies or whatever is showing, and for a pedophile, this kind of thing could be misconstrued as an invitation to a sexual encounter. Very scary, sick and twisted. Parents show your little ones these kinds of manners, so sickos don’t forget theirs. My siblings and I were never warned or talked to about not going with or taking anything from strangers, or bathroom safety or good and bad touch. My adoptive father was and is what every father and mother should fear most for their children.

  6. Please do not leave out the disturbing increase in molestation by female teachers. There are stories in the press multiple times each week.

    • David, thank you for your comment. You’re correct, while men are more likely to be child sex abusers, they do not hold a monopoly on this crime. Women are also abusers. I would like to point out, however, that I’m not sure there has actually been an increase in cases involving female teachers. I suspect we’re hearing more about such cases because the media is finally paying more attention.

      In any case, teachers who engage in sexual activity with underage students are abusers. While the student might participate voluntarily, he or she cannot provide consent. That fact combined with the fact that the teacher has power over the student and has likely manipulated the child makes this abuse. Researchers have found that this form of abuse is indeed harmful to young people.

  7. Thank you. This is a very important issue (of course), and one which has been of concern for many years.

    May I then add just one more aspect? Female genital mutilation (it’s NOT ‘cutting’: is a growing problem in the USA, UK etc – some half a million girls and women are thought to be at risk, or already victims, in the USA alone.

    Although there is now a ‘trend’ towards inflicting this grim harm on ever-younger girls and babies, before they can tell anyone, there are also thousands of school children in western countries who are prepared, and sometimes sent overseas, for FGM. Obviously, this must be stopped.

    The breach of trust in harming a child by FGM is absolute, but the rationales – centuries of tradition, un-marriageability unless mutilated, etc – can seem to some convincing or (to parents and their community) inescapable.

    In the UK we are now trying to bring consideration of FGM into the personal, social, health, relationships / PSHRE curriculum in class, for all age groups and both genders – boys need to be aware too, not least to protect their sisters and to understand they are not required to marry an ‘initiated’ woman.

    Is there any similar initiative in the States?

    And what, if any, evidence on generational repetition might be available on this particular topic?

    Many thanks
    Hilary Burrage

    • Hilary, thank you for raising the issue of Female Genital Mutilation. For my readers who may be unaware, I would like to add that the United Nations included FGM in the “Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women” (December 1993). Sadly, as you have pointed out, the practice nevertheless continues.

      Given that FGM is most commonly inflicted in African and Middle Eastern countries, some might believe that FGM is strictly a Muslim practice sanctioned by Islam. However, neither is the case. While FGM is most often inflicted by Muslims, the practice is not limited to Muslims. For example, in Niger, Christian girls are far more likely to experience FGM than Muslim girls. Interestingly, no religion actually calls for FGM as part of religious practice. Underscoring this point, in 2007 the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research in Cairo ruled that FGM had “no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions.” FGM is a cultural, not a religious, practice. Its spread to the West is due largely to an influx of immigrants from areas where FGM is practiced.

      Successfully combatting FGM will require strict penalties and education. It’s a complex issue that also requires cultural understanding, though not tolerance of the practice.

  8. I know the statistics for now say that men are the more likely to abuse– but I think the way it’s stated here, as it’s so often stated elsewhere– is insensitive and marginalizing to those who have endured sexual abuse from females. Ditto for domestic violence.

    I appreciate you acknowledging this in the comments, but wish it was better reflected in the body of the article. Because of prevailing societal attitudes, I think we’ll find that there were enough abusive women who got away because people were looking the other way, or simply wouldn’t believe it.

    • Jaklumen, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and for underscoring the fact that men do not hold a monopoly when it comes to child sex abuse. Abusers are women as well as men. Nothing in my original post was meant to suggest otherwise.

      • “Pedophiles are almost always men.” I think we’re finding that this is not necessarily true anymore– that women are allowed a LOT more leeway and that reports are still abysmally low.

      • Jaklumen, that might indeed be the case. However, at this point, it remains speculation. Researchers and criminologists will no doubt provide us greater and more accurate insight in time. For now, my article reflects the current understanding. Since it is clear currently that both men and women can be abusers, I believe we already know enough to keep children safe. We simply cannot assume that children are safe with women. Danger exists among both genders.

  9. Perhaps you may want to adjust your statement that men are most often the ones who do it. Please see this:

    While I will agree more men are “caught” often females get away with it, and the rape numbers are skewed because of it.

    Double standards, and courts who deem women as less invasion often get lighter sentences. Think about adjusting your article to say that women do rape as well.

    • Jim, thank you for your comment and for sharing the article link. I want to point out that my original post did not suggest that only men commit sexual abuse. When quoting veteran crime reporter Candace Sutton, I wrote, “Pedophiles are almost always men…” That is, in fact, the case. While women are also sexual offenders, the research shows that men are the more likely offenders. The article you referenced even states, “…results indicated that up to 20% of a conservative estimate of 320,000 suspected UK paedophiles were women.” That means 80 percent are men.

      While men are more likely to be sexual predators, they clearly do not hold a monopoly with this crime. When working to keep children safe, we do need to recognize that both men and women represent a potential danger.

  10. I was sexually molested by my father when I was very young – 3-5, decades ago. Blocked it out for years and then all the memories came back while in therapy. My sister admitted that it probably happened. Parents long gone as they died young. The characteristics of the child molester in this article do not match my father in most cases, however he was affable – very well liked by most. He did have a box of Playboy magazines under the bed as I recall discovering! My question is – is it not possible that someone can be a child molester – however under very specific and opportunistic circumstances, however not a repeat offender? If you have any insights into this I appreciate hearing them.

    • Cynthia, thank you for having the courage to share your story. I congratulate you on surviving your ordeal and working to overcome the trauma it no-doubt caused you.

      While I would never describe myself as a child-sex-abuse expert, I know enough to understand that child sex abuse is a complex problem. I often compare it to cancer. There’s actually no such thing as “cancer.” The word “cancer” describes a variety of different diseases with different pathologies, different treatments, and different outcomes. In other words, “cancer” is a term that describes a variety diseases that, while somewhat similar, remain distinct. The same is true of child sex abuse.

      My further understanding is that it is possible to have an abuser who acts only once or has only one target. (However, this could be, at least in some cases, because their additional victims are unknown and/or the molesters have not been caught.) While that is not the norm, there are certainly plenty of people who do not fit the classic pattern. And while the article described some legitimate warning signs, it’s impossible to develop a uniform, comprehensive profile of all child molesters because there are strong differences among them.

      By the way, you mentioned that your father was affable. That does not surprise me. If child molesters were unpleasant, mean people who wore trench-coats and lurked around in the shadows, no one would trust them to be near their kids making the molester’s efforts much more difficult. To be sure, there are such folks who do molest children. However, since child sex abuse is most often a crime of opportunity, molesters generally try to appear approachable and friendly. In the Internet Age, when molesters “groom” their targets on-line, this is particularly the case.

      If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to contact your local child advocacy center. In addition to primarily working with children, most CACs will either work directly with adult survivors or will refer them to the resources or professional assistance that adult survivors seek.

      I wish you well.

  11. I saw the movie The Strange Thing about the Johnsons (2011). It’s a short film where the son molested his own father. That movie set me on the edge. I didn’t truly understand it and why.

    • Alma, thank you for taking the time to write in. While I have not seen the film, I have done a bit of research into it. The film is supposed to be a satire. By flipping the molestation relationship, as absurd as that is, the filmmakers hoped to stimulate conversation about a challenging subject.

  12. I was a girlfriend of a man who violated his daughter while I was there in the home. I heard him move the bed making it creak like when he would be on top of me. I saw him walk to the kitchen regroup and pull up his pants. Then, he went back into his daughter’s room and asked his 7 year old if she was ok. She said, “Yuh.”

    I told the police. They think I’m the one who is in the wrong and are doing nothing.

    I can’t sleep I’m mad at myself that I didn’t go into the room before it was all done. I haven’t talked to him in three weeks. I don’t want anything to do with him.

    Why won’t the police do anything? They said if a 47 year old had sex with a 7 year old, she would have acted like she was in more pain. What can I do?

    • L., thank you for contacting me and for trying to do the right thing. Your story is horrifying for a variety of reasons, as you well know.

      Before I address your message, I need to point out that I am not a lawyer, a member of law enforcement, a social worker, a child-welfare worker, etc. In other words, I’m in no position to give you official advice. However, based on conversations I’ve had with experts, I can provide you with some friendly suggestions.

      First, I want to offer a few words of caution. You need to be very careful about how you talk about your boyfriend (I hope former boyfriend). In the absence of tangible evidence, you do not want to expose yourself to a libel or slander lawsuit. You also do not want to incur your ex-boyfriend’s violent wrath. You need to ensure your own safety.

      Second, while reported your suspicions to the police, you can also file a report with your local child protective services agency and your local child advocacy center (an independent social service agency). You may find that these other agencies will be more responsive and better equipped to deal with the situation.

      For further assistance in the USA, you can contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline by calling 1-800-422-4453. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

      You’ve described a challenging, sad situation. I wish you the best of luck dealing with it. Please let me know what happens.

  13. I totally agree with you!

  14. I completely agree with this article

  15. You said nothing on how to recognize the child molester in the family, the signs to watch for?

    • Scarlett, thank you for your message. While some of the signs outlined would apply to family members, there’s sadly no fool-proof way to spot the villains who are within the circle of trust. We need to be alert and trust our gut and trust our kids. But, even that won’t work all of the time.

      I got involved in the issue of child sex abuse when I served as a juror on case involving a young boy and his step-grandfather. We convicted the step-grandfather. Interestingly, everyone in the family knew that the guy molested girls. So, they kept their daughters away from him. However, they thought their sons were safe. They weren’t. The other interesting thing that came out during the trial was that the little boy didn’t want to stay at his step-grandfather’s apartment after school. He’d even get a stomach ache when he had to. These should have been warning signs. The mother should have tried to understand why her son was reluctant to visit his grandmother and step-grandfather, especially given the guy’s history. The signs of a family abuser are not always so obvious. However, we need to do our best to be sensitive to any indicators.

  16. My name is Shane and I live in Australia. One week ago, I was accused of touching my two step kids which I’ve been with for six years. They are ages 14 and 8. I can tell you now I haven’t done anything wrong that I can figure out, but now I’ve been charged with two counts of rape and ten of
    sexual abuse. My partner believes their stories, and I have no one to turn to or talk to as I’ve devoted all my time to my partner and kids.

    What do I do?

    • Shane, thank you for contacting me about your situation. The best suggestion I can give you is to hire the best attorney you can afford, ideally one who has had success with other defendants accused of similar crimes. If you are innocent, I wish you the best of luck. If you are not, I encourage you to admit your guilt to save the children the pain of a trial.


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