Another Halloween has passed, and we haven’t heard about any child eating a poisoned piece of candy.
We also received no reports of a registered sex offender molesting a Superman or princess who knocked on the wrong front door.
While these types of incidents are extremely rare, that fact hasn’t stopped parents from worrying about the safety of their children on Halloween night.
Trick-or-treating has turned into a family affair with parents monitoring their children’s approaches to every house. The Janesville Police Department and state Department of Corrections help give parents peace of mind by visiting on Halloween night the homes of registered sex offenders to ensure they’re not misbehaving.
Many other communities conduct similar checks, and some departments even give these checks military-sounding monikers, such as Operation Blackout and Operation Unmask.
Janesville police have been conducting the Halloween checks for about a decade. Police sometimes discover probation or parole violations, but they haven’t stumbled on anything like sex offenders using treats to lure kids into their homes.
While police efforts to protect children are obviously appreciated, these operations can reinforce the myth that sex offenders mainly target strangers. In fact, in 86 percent of the cases reported to law enforcement, the victims of sexual assault know the perpetrators, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Scarier still, nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed by a family or extended family member.
People’s fears of offenders randomly targeting victims is partly the media’s fault. When a stranger is victimized, these crimes make headlines and capture both the public’s attention and imagination. Fear rises because attacks on strangers imply everyone has an equal chance of becoming a victim. “It could be my child” is the thought that crosses many parents’ minds.
But parents should worry less about a boogeyman lurking outside the window and more about someone their child already knows, including people the child trusts.
While parents shouldn’t become paranoid, they should ask their children open-ended questions about their interactions with other adults—what they enjoyed doing during their time with that adult and what they didn’t enjoy. Parents must listen closely to the responses for any hint of inappropriate or maybe criminal behavior.
Parents should make clear—repeating often—to children (as soon as they’re able to understand) the differences between “good touching” and “bad touching.” Children must know where the boundaries are and to speak up if those boundaries are ever crossed.
Protecting children from sexual predators requires vigilance, but it also demands perspective. Parents who spend too much time looking for boogeymen risk failing to see the real villain that may be already part of their lives.