Read the main story, "Overcoming abuse," about three women who spoke out against a local sexual predator here.
When something seems odd about a situation involving young children and possible sexual or other abuse, "The best thing anybody could do is trust the hairs on the back of their neck," Palo Alto police Lieutenant Zachary Perron recommends.
Perron, who spent from 2003 to 2008 as the lead investigator of sex crimes involving minors and who currently oversees that area among others in the detective division, said that a person of any age can report situations or actions that seem odd or inappropriate.
"They need to trust that instinct and pick up the phone, or tell an adult and bring it to someone's attention," he said.
"The same thing goes for reporting suspicious activities in our neighborhoods: Trust that initial instinct. Give the police a call and let us have a chance to come out and investigate."
People need not be afraid of a law-enforcement rush-to-judgment against someone, as today's investigative procedures relating to sex-related crimes involving minors are precisely defined and investigators are given special training, he emphasized.
"From personal experience, these are among the most detail-oriented and complex investigations a department can undertake. They are only done by detectives with special training and are not investigations that occur quickly or in a hasty manner. Sometimes it takes several months for an investigation to be finished, not the least of which is doing a proper interview of a child."
Young children can be "very easily led and are suggestible. Interviews need to be done in a very special and open-ended, non-leading way. An entire investigation can be jeopardized by an investigator using even a single wrong word."
Structured interview procedures have been developed for the "unique crime" of sexual abuse of children in conjunction with the district attorney's office, and training is ongoing each year for officers assigned to such cases, he said. Investigations are often coordinated with the Child Protective Services agency of the county.
"Just because somebody calls the police doesn't equate to somebody being investigated for a sex crime. It simply means that officer who's trained to investigate suspicious behavior is going to come out and investigate suspicious behavior. That's all it means," Perron said.
And some reports of possible abuse are legally required: "School administrators, just like cops, are mandated reporters of child abuse -- not just sexual but emotional or physical," he said.
Part of the investigation is attempting to get to know the alleged perpetrator.
"There's a big difference between someone who may be a 'child molester' and somebody whom we in law enforcement would call a 'child predator.'"
Perron said they both may have been convicted of an identical crime -- sexual contact with a child under 14 -- but the difference between them is that a molester is someone whose primary sexual interest is adults.
"A child predator is a completely different person. That is going to be someone whose primary sexual interest is in children. ... That's a very important difference," he said.
The vast majority of registered sexual offenders in California fall under the molester category and are not child sexual predators, he added.
"The challenge for law enforcement and the court system is unless a suspect is going to come forward and confess their deepest, innermost sexual fantasies to you voluntarily, there's no way really to get inside somebody's head to determine which category they fall into."
In one sense it doesn't matter which category fits, as both have committed a sex crime against a child, for which if convicted they should go to prison, he said.
"It helps from an investigation standpoint to know what's going on in that person's head as best you can," Perron said. That is a matter of training and approach, and "not passing judgment on what the act was" during interviews, he said.
Yet prevention and early detection are vitally important in a community.
"I think it's incumbent on all adults to be mindful and protective, because children have a special place in all of our hearts," Perron said.