Hardly a week goes by without a story in the news about child predators. Last month a Brooklyn teacher's aide, 40-year-old Taleek Brooks, was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography. He spent several weeks in jail before being released on $100,000 bail.
The case took an even more disturbing twist when the FBI searched Brooks' home. Among the thousand-plus pornographic images of children on his computer, authorities said, were videos of Brooks sexually abusing children in a classroom at the elementary school where he taught. He was rearrested in early February and charged with producing child pornography. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 15 years in prison.
Although only two children on the videos have been identified, it's easy to worry that Brooks -- who had been working in the schools since 1991 -- might have abused more.
The suburbs are no haven from such episodes. Two weeks ago, Michael Hopkins, 25, a former monitor at an after-school elementary program in Melville, was sentenced to seven years after pleading guilty to trading child porn over the Internet. The graphic, sadomasochistic images involved kids as young as infants.
Hopkins' attorney says there's no evidence his client molested anyone, but that's little comfort to parents whose children came in contact with him. Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, cites a 2008 study of two groups of child pornography offenders in a federal prison. One group had no record of committing physical abuse, while the other had a known history of molesting children.
Researchers found that the inmates convicted of non-contact offenses had, in fact, committed child-contact offenses that were unknown to law enforcement, says Atwell-Davis, who added: "The study strongly suggests a correlation between possessing child pornography and committing contact offenses against children."
Of course, even if we could eliminate child pornography, child sexual abuse would not disappear. One problem is that we tend to look for it in the wrong places. The stereotypical molester -- a stranger in a raincoat lurking near the playground -- is a rarity. Anthony Zenkus, director of education and mental health services at the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect in Bethpage, says that in about 90 percent of cases sex abuse is perpetrated by someone both the child and the parents know and trust -- even family members.
"Parents too often give their power over to individuals because of their status within the community," says Zenkus. "They need to realize that sexual offenders will do and say whatever is necessary to gain the trust of institutions and parents."
Background checks can only accomplish so much. "Most sex offenders have never been caught because most kids never tell," Zenkus says. "Or, worse, when they do tell, an adult doesn't believe them or doesn't report it."
The Penn State case, Zenkus adds, isn't an isolated incident. "There are cases we're dealing with right now on Long Island where the school had suspicion that a child was being sexually abused and didn't report, or waited up to a year."
Parents, schools and other groups must create safe environments for kids, and that means minimizing as much as possible one-adult, one-child situations, where most sex abuse occurs. When a child and an adult must be alone -- for example, when a student is conferring with a guidance counselor -- it should never be in a closed room not easily accessible at any moment. It's not parental paranoia -- it's a realistic response to an all-too-common crime.