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April is Autism Awareness Month

What Parents Can Learn From The Larry Nassar And USA Gymnastics Case


As former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar sits in a cell in a high-security federal prison in Arizona, parents of his victims are struggling to understand how he won their trust so completely. In some cases, Nassar abused children under the guise of treatment while their parents were in the room. As Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports, now those parents want others to learn from this case.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: At first, Deb McCaul could not understand how parents missed this. How could they have sat in on their kids' appointments with Nassar and not know that under the towel he placed over his patients or that when he turned his back to block parents' view, he was touching them sexually?

DEB MCCAUL: It was unimaginable and hard for me to understand when I first heard it. Like, how could you have that happen and not know - until I found out it happened and I didn't know.

WELLS: McCaul's daughter Morgan is 18. She saw Nassar several times for treatment. And at first when the accusations against Nassar started trickling out, McCaul thought her daughter had been spared. Then when Morgan told her that she too had been abused, McCaul realized that she had been sitting just a few feet away, chatting with Larry Nassar the whole time.

MCCAUL: I wasn't somebody who was, like, nose in my phone or in a magazine or a book. Whenever Larry was doing something that I knew was in that area, I would get up and go stand by the table.

ADRIANNE SIMEONE: It's not the parents' fault. These were loving parents, and they are victims, too.

WELLS: That is Adrianne Simeone. She is speaking on Skype. She heads up the Mama Bear Effect. It's a group that teaches kids and adults how to prevent sexual abuse. She says it's easy to blame the parents of Nassar's victims because that lets us feel like this could never happen to our kid. But statistically, most abusers are not strangers driving around in windowless vans. They are people that we trust. And Simeone says we have to be vulnerable and honest with our own kids about that.

SIMEONE: And just allowing our children to know that even we ourselves - we are not infallible. We can make mistakes. We could very well trust the wrong people but that no matter what, our child comes first.

WELLS: Forensic psychologist Carla van Dam has spent years studying and interviewing the kind of predator she calls the socially skilled child molester.

CARLA VAN DAM: They target the adults in order to gain access to their children.

WELLS: Much like Nassar, they have great credentials and reputations in the community. But van Dam says they test what they can get away with, and they do it by breaking small rules. For instance, Nassar didn't wear gloves during his treatments. He didn't always have a chaperone when treating kids. But when his employer, Michigan State University, first found out, he was not fired.

VAN DAM: That's clearly a violation, and it should have been spelled out. And that should have been the end of it. If you don't tolerate minor transgressions at all, you make the world unsafe for sex offenders.

WELLS: Parents of Nassar's victims logically know that this was not their fault. They know even parents who were in law enforcement or doctors also sat in on those appointments and were fooled. But for Deb McCaul, knowing this is one thing. Forgiving herself is another.

MCCAUL: I'm the mom who made my kids wear bicycle helmets even when they were just riding in the grass. So for this to happen on my watch just feels like, man, I really, really messed up, you know?

WELLS: And that is what McCaul wants other parents to understand - that predators are skilled at getting our trust to access our kids. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is an award-winning reporter who covers politics, education, public policy and just about everything in between for Iowa Public Radio, and is based in Cedar Rapids. Her work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She's also contributed coverage to WNYC in New York, Harvest Public Media, Austin Public Radio (KUT) and the Texas Tribune. Winner of the 2012 regional RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award and NBNA Eric Sevareid Award for investigative reporting, Kate came to Iowa Public Radio in 2010 from New England. Previously, she was a news intern for New Hampshire Public Radio.