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Kids And Strangers: When Do You Know If A Stranger Is A Pedophile?

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My wife, 10-year-old son, and I live in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, S.C., on a street where nearly everyone has at least one child between the ages of 7 and 12. Every afternoon seven or eight boys are in my next-door neighbor's yard playing football and not inside playing video games. If I'm home from work early enough, I'll watch them play from our dining room, looking out through what my wife calls "the window to the world."

We know one another and watch out for each other's kids. No one in the neighborhood had any reason to worry about their kids until the stranger appeared.

But then again no one thought anything was wrong with the three teachers from the same Los Angeles elementary school who have been arrested for sexual abuse. One has been charged with spoonfeeding his semen to blindfolded students.

Nobody thought anything was wrong with a camp counselor, vice principal, and church youth leader in Mt. Pleasant last fall who has been charged with sexually molesting several children.

People knew these men and trusted their children with them.

In our case, the stranger showed up in the neighborhood for first time a few weeks ago. He was at least a foot taller than any of the other kids. We thought it was a little odd that this older boy would want to play with kids who were a lot younger. He told us he was 17 but, when he spoke, he seemed much younger. The school he said he attended is for kids who were kicked out of their local school.

As I watched from the window to the world, I saw that the games ran better when he was there. He saw to it that kids played by the rules, and, on one occasion, broke up a tussle between two boys. A few parents told their kids that they couldn't play with him. I think the rest of us had concerns but the games went on.

One night my son told us that the boy asked him if he wanted to be in a private club -- a "sticks" club it was called because the other boys would gather sticks by a nearby swamp so he could carve them. We told our son that he was not allowed to go anywhere with him. One night our son said that the stranger had gone off with a couple of the boys to the swamp.

A day later, the same day that the Los Angeles school teacher was arrested, my wife looked outside and saw the stranger hand a few dollars to our son. My wife told our son to return the money and then to come inside. When my wife and son were finished talking, she looked outside and the stranger and the other boys were gone.

My wife ran to the swamp and called out the boys' names. When they appeared, she told the stranger that she didn't think it was appropriate for him to play with the young boys and asked him to go home.

When the mother of one of the boys came home, my wife told them what had happened. Her son told her that the stranger had given him his phone number and $5. She didn't know if anything had happened at the swamp. But fearing the worst, she began crying. When her husband came home, she told him and he broke down. When my wife told one of the other boy's mothers, she revealed that she had a brother who was sexually abused.

My neighbors and we have talked a lot since then. A couple of us have spoken to the police. We don't know if anything happened at the swamp. But we shudder when we consider the possibility that something might have happened, if not that day then another.

The boy has not returned to the neighborhood. We don't know if he is a pedophile. He might just be a lonely boy who meant no harm. But we can't afford to take that chance.