Here, Karen, 55, tells the story in her own words.
T￼he words chilled me to the core.
‘Put me in a schoolyard and I can tell you every kid who’s been abused or is open to abuse in five minutes,’ the prisoner told me.
As a forensic psychologist working in jails with high-risk child sex offenders, I thought I’d heard it all. But this was something else. And it made me even more committed to my job. To keep our communities safe and protect our kids, I had to delve deep into the minds of these predators.
The cold, hard reality was that one day, these men would be back on the streets. How do we stop them creating more victims? I thought, determined.
Starting my career as a mental health nurse, I noticed patients who exhibited inappropriate sexual behaviours. Why? I thought. So I went back to uni to study psychology.
Helping to launch Australia’s first sex offender treatment program in Victorian prisons, I worked with convicted men, and sometimes women. And I realised very quickly that news headlines about creepy trench coat-wearing paedophiles loitering in parks were a dangerous trap. It was impossible to pinpoint exactly who a child sex perpetrator might be.
Statistically speaking, only 10 per cent are strangers to their victims. Who are the other 90 per cent then?
Scarily, most offenders were someone a child knew and had regular contact with.
To protect our kids, we had to teach them early on to trust their own intuition.
‘Give your uncle a kiss!’ I’d hear parents tell littlies.
But mums and dads need to stop forcing kids to kiss and cuddle every adult who comes through the door.
Kids are used to doing what they’re told and predators rely on this. They also depend on a code of silence.
‘It’s because you’re special,’ a perpetrator will tell a kid. ‘But don’t tell Mummy and Daddy.’
If the child agrees to keep the secret, that gives a predator a green light to begin the grooming process. Your child needs to know they can tell you anything.
Each night, awful things I’d heard would roll over in my head. Then, after 11 years in the prison system, I began my own private practice where courts had me assess child sex offenders to gauge the risk they’d pose if released.
It was a huge responsibility and I’d always err on the side of caution.
I also encountered men who’d never acted on inappropriate thoughts, but felt like they were about to.
‘I need help,’ they’d plead, petrified they’d hurt a child.
One, in his early 20s, had been suddenly dumped by his high-school sweetheart.
Lonely, he began searching the net for pornography and gradually looked at more and more obscene material.
Driving home one day, he pulled over and found himself staring at young girls waiting at a bus stop.
Snapping out of it, he started the car and drove away, desperate to find help. ‘I terrified myself,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone.’ So I taught him strategies to avoid situations where he risked abusing children and to develop empathy.
As I understood how predators manipulated kids, I also worked with victims who made allegations of abuse.
Horrifyingly, one little boy who was sexually assaulted in the bath said he was playing firemen with his abuser, who kept referring to his penis as his ‘fire pole’.
In court, the defence lawyer argued the boy was playing with a toy fire pole.
Sadly, the perpetrator walked free as it was impossible to prove that the crime had taken place beyond reasonable doubt. It’s why it’s so important we teach children to name their body parts properly. A penis is a penis and a vagina is a vagina.
After a while, I had to stop working with kids as, for me, it made it near impossible to understand an offender. I want to reach across the table and slap you! I’d think.
But, as difficult as it was, I had to keep my cool in order to keep our kids safe.
It can be difficult to deal with, but thankfully I work with my friend, Bea, a fellow psychologist.
‘Are you okay?’ she’ll say. ‘Yes,’ I’ll lie, a million things on my mind. ‘Bull,’ she’ll call me out, getting me to talk it through.
After 30 years working in this field, I don’t think an offender can be ‘cured’. Still, I do think it’s possible to help them to avoid hurting a defenceless child. And that’s what keeps me going.
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