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America's silent epidemic: child sexual abuse

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AMARILLO - Some are calling it America's silent epidemic child sexual abuse.

Everyone probably knows a victim of child sexual abuse, whether it be a friend, acquaintance or someone in your family. The perpetrators of those crimes aren't typically strangers.

Every Halloween, parents are cautioned to check the sex offender registry and warn their children to steer clear.

"Knowing where sex offenders live in you neighborhood is certainly a step every parent should take and should know," the Director of the Community Supervision and Corrections Department for Potter, Randall and Armstrong Counties Terry Easterling said.

For the past ten years, Easterling's had officers make sure sex offenders on probation don't welcome trick-or-treaters on Halloween night.

"We don't want children feeling comfortable going to a sex offender's house anytime," Easterling said.

But Halloween night is no more dangerous than any other.

There are 650 registered sex offenders in Potter and Randall counties alone. You can see where they all live on the Department of Safety website or certain phone apps. But the people most likely to harm your children probably won't be found on the list.

"We need to let go of the idea of stranger danger. Strangers don't pose a risk that's significant to our children," Licensed Sex Offender Treatment Provider Troy Simmons said.

Simmons has worked with convicted child molesters and victims for about 20 years.

He's written two books on the subject and worked with Texas courts to provide treatment to several hundred offenders.

"In Amarillo, we see a little bit of everything," Simmons said. "Probably the most common offender is the friend of the family, like a neighbor, the step-father, or the uncle."

As to why that happens, there's no one reason. Simmons says for some it's about power and control and others it's simply an obsession.

"The question sometimes is, is this an illness that beyond their control? I don't believe it is. I believe that these are behavioral choices that in some ways like alcoholism can be managed long term," Simmons said.

About 100 sex offenders in Amarillo are involved in programs enforced by probation officers and conducted by counselors like Simmons. Weekly group meetings, polygraph testing, and intensive therapy are handed down in most cases instead of jail time. Research from the Texas Department of Health shows it works more than 80 percent of the time.

"The happier and the healthier that the offender is in all areas of his life, then the safer they are within the community," Simmons said.

Simmons says sex offenders typically go with less assertive children they believe would be the least likely to tell.

So to best protect your children, Simmons says trust your instincts about the people you let have access to your family and make sure your kids know how and when to say no. 

"Early and often. Kindergarten and first grade is a wonderful time to be talking to children about whose job includes touching or seeing your privates. And children get that. They understand jobs because we talk to them about what do you want to be when you grow up," Simmons said.

Only 15 percent of cases are thought to be reported, likely because victims are often close with the offender and are ashamed to tell their families.
    

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