But within the past few years, “groups are reaching out to us,” Bialecki said.
The training aims to help parents, caregivers, and people who work with children recognize warning signs and keep kids safe, and the message is simple, Bialecki said. “Sexual offenders can look like anyone around you, and they can be in your family, your neighborhood, your friends, and in positions of trust in a community.”
Indeed, 80 percent to 90 percent of abusers are people known to the children, said UNH’s Finkelhor.
Despite the dropping rate of substantiated sexual abuse cases, widespread media coverage and high-profile offenders make for a nervous public, he said. “There’s been a steady parade of sex crimes against children in the news over the last 20 years.”
“Some of the anxiety is positive,” he added, “in that people are taking precautions and thinking about who their kids are with and making sure they’ve talked to their kids, but some of it is probably an overreaction, too.”
Jetta Bernier, executive director of MassKids, says her organization’s surveys show that parents have become more anxious over the years. “In some ways that’s a good thing — there’s greater recognition that this is not just some rare occurrence.”
Parents aren’t the only ones becoming more educated, Bernier added. Child-safety advocates are, too.
When the Massachusetts Medical Society asked her to revise a brochure on child sexual abuse that she had written for the group in 2006, Bernier realized she needed to completely re-do it.
“We have learned so much since then,” she said, explaining that in-depth interviews with sexual abusers have provided valuable insight.
Bernier gave an example: “Sometimes [the predator] will start with ‘accidental’ touching to see if the kid is a good target. They’ll sit on the couch really close to the kid and see if he wiggles away. They might even do it in front of another adult. If the kid doesn’t move, that says it’s OK.”
But even as education increases, and abuse rates drop, many parents say the only time they feel truly safe is when their kids are in view.
“Their lives can be destroyed so quickly,” said Christine Nolan, a Somerville mother of three who supervises as many of their activities as possible. “If I can prevent that, I’m going to. They’re all I have.”