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By Tammi Pitzen, Executive Director of The Children’s Advocacy Center of Jackson County

It is not often that a child abuse case plays out on the national stage.  However, last week, we had one play out.  The young lady who was kidnapped by her teacher was found and rescued.

Please note the language used here.  Kidnapped.  Rescued.  Keep those words in your mind as you read the rest of this blog post.

To fill in those who have not tuned into this story, a 15 year old girl was kidnapped by teacher, Tad Cummings.  They were on the run for about a month before the FBI located them in Siskiyou County at a remote cabin.

Since she was found, I have been asked many times about what a parent can do to prevent this from happening — what the signs are to look for, and I have been questioned about whether she was in a relationship or was she really kidnapped.

I want to start off by saying that anything that happens between a child and an adult — the adult is responsible. 

There is a power differential between a child and an adult.  The adult always holds power.  This power differential is even greater when that adult is a teacher or a person in a position of authority or trust.  In some regards, it is the same power and control that you hear about in domestic violence.  The offender has all the power and control.  The victim has none.  What happens is similar to what happens when someone is “gaslighting”.  The victim’s reality is whatever the offender tells her it is. The offender is able to accomplish this through “grooming” behaviors.  It does not happen overnight.  There is a process.

Of course, here is where I insert the disclaimer.  I don’t have personal knowledge of what has happened in this case.  I am basing my opinions on what information is out in the news, which may or may not be accurate.  Also, he is innocent until proven guilty.  And, of course, she is not accused of anything–so blameless.

Let’s look at what has been reported.  The victim’s sister says that she is vulnerable because she had been the victim of bullying.  His sister says he was trying to keep her safe.  She was going to run away and so he needed to go with her so she wouldn’t be alone.

He packed medication for erectile dysfunction, handguns and $4,500 he had just received through a loan.  He told his wife he needed to go to Virginia to clear his head.  Now right off the bat I need to clarify what I see as thinking errors (others would call it the things we tell ourselves to convince ourselves and others that what we are doing is actually a noble deed or something that we had no control over—either is a good way to look at it.)  Google “sex offender thinking errors” for a better description.

1) If a teen is going to run away, an adult male’s first response is not to run away with her.  A rational person would contact the child’s parent, another school official, or perhaps — if the school has one — a school resource officer.

2) Erectile dysfunction medication is not for a life threatening condition (as in your health would not be in jeopardy if you do not take them) and is useless in keeping teenage girls safe.

3) Married adult men do not lie to their wives about their intentions if they are not improper.  I am sure there are many, many more of these, but I just want to give you a few to think about as you are deciding what your thoughts and opinions are about this case.

Let’s move on to whether or not the victim is to blame and what exactly is her crime.

She was vulnerable because of being bullied.  She trusted an adult who made her feel special.  When you are bullied, you begin to experience low self-esteem and do not feel you have value.  As a 15-year-old bullied girl, it would be very uplifting to know that an adult male found value in you.  If you are good at grooming, you will be able to convince said teen that not only do you think they have value, but that you are the best thing that has ever happened in their life.

I also read that there was a restraining order granted that would prohibit the victim’s mom from having contact with her.  Another thing that victim did wrong was to have a mother who had been physically abusive in the past and to have a court find that it would be detrimental for the victim to have contact with her mother at this time.

All sarcasm aside.  Offenders target children who have low self-esteem, have disrupted or strained relationships with one or both parents and who may have strained or non-existent peer relationships. It is so much easier to manipulate the victim if they do not have open communication with anyone outside the offender.  And yes,  he is an alleged offender.  As she is a child, she is unable to consent to a relationship with an adult–that is what the law says. The age of consent in Tennessee is 18, in Oklahoma it is 16 and in California it is 18—according to my online research.  Basically, as a 15-year-old in all three states that we know he took her to, she was unable to consent to having a sexual relationship with the alleged offender.

No matter whether it turns out that the two of them had any sexual contact, it was illegal.  AND the ADULT is responsible. So yes, he is an alleged sex offender.  Yes.  She is a victim of child sexual assault or whatever term those state’s statutes use for that event.  NO!  She is not to blame.

The conversation needs to be changed to help those out there who may be listening who have not yet found safety—who have not yet reported. 

If you or those around you are blaming the child…other children who may be in similar situations will not report.  It isn’t safe.  The conversation needs to shift from victim blaming, to what is it we all can do to help create a safe environment for children to report and find safety and heal.

The conversation needs to change from what can parents look for if their child is at risk, to how can a parent be engaged throughout a child’s life.  We know that nurturing needs to begin early in life.  We know that safety needs should be met early in life.  The best way to reduce the risk that your child will become a victim is to  have dinner as a family, to keep communication open, to establish early on that — no matter what your child tells you – you will always love them, keep them safe, advocate for them — be there for them.

We know that starting these conversations during the teen years is not as effective as starting them when they are 3 or younger.  The best way to safeguard your child against sexual abuse is to be present in their life…know who their friends are…who their friend’s parents are… who their teachers are and to model healthy and appropriate relationships for your child.

Is it too late to start if your child is already a teen?  No way!  But own up to the fact that you are starting the conversation late. Your child will appreciate the fact that you realize this.  Follow through…if you tell them they can tell you anything…then be open and let them tell you anything and try to not respond with anger, disappointment, or judgment.

Finally, put all would-be offenders on notice that you are watching. 

If an adult is spending too much alone time with your child…ask them why and put a stop to it.  If someone is crossing boundaries that you recognize should not be crossed…call them out on it.  If you haven’t met the people your child is hanging out with or if they are always “meeting” them places instead of letting you get to know their friends…put a stop to it.

Grooming is a real thing.

Learn about it.  Take a class.  The CAC teaches adults to recognize and respond to sexual abuse.  Enroll in a Protect Our Children class by visiting our website at http://cacjc.org/services/prevention/