Newsday/Laura A. Ahearn

Recent high-profile sex-crime cases on Long Island bring to mind the most basic and least knownchildhood sexual-abuse prevention fact that every parent and caregiver needs to understand: Mostchildhood sexual abuse involves someone with whom a child has an established and trustingrelationship.

Childhood sexual victimization begins with the initiation of, or exploitative expansion of, anexisting relationship, whether sparked in an Internet chat room or cultivated within a family or ona soccer field.

The year ends for Long Islanders with memories of the June and August mistaken release of twoLong Island convicted sexual predators, Christopher Bayer, aka Smiley the Clown, and Robert Bitter.Both men brutally victimized children well known to them. Even after they were convicted, they weremistakenly released to enjoy their freedom while they awaited their sentencing - a slap in the faceto child victims and their families.

These two cases illustrate the lack of priority paid to informing prosecutors and judges ofchanges to statutes designed to protect communities from sexual predators and to bring justice tochild sexual-abuse victims and their families. In both cases, the judges and prosecutors said theywere unaware of a new law prohibiting release of such convicted abusers on their ownrecognizance.

These cases also illustrate the point that most childhood sexual abuse happens with someone withwhom a child has an established and trusting relationship. Sexual predators are good at what theydo. They carefully select their victims and methodically chip away at their boundaries, a processcalled grooming. The grooming process can take hours, days or years, depending upon the nature ofthe relationship between the offender and the child target and child's family.

Internet predators are no different from those who have person-to-person contact with theirvictims. They still have to court and groom the child by giving the child what he or she needs tofeel special or cared about. In August, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl was transported over statelines by a Long Island couple she met in an Internet chat room. Even after being held hostage,tortured and sexually abused, she told a reporter that she was hurt because she thought they[the alleged abusers] were nice. All children crave love, attention and affection, and predatorsuse this to lure in their unsuspecting victims.

The Internet has become a preying ground for predators who lurk about in chat rooms - waiting toinitiate a relationship and to seduce a child through the grooming process, all the while planningto meet the child to sexually victimize him or her. My experience as a sexual-abuse preventioneducator is that most parents believe their children are immune from direct-contact sexualvictimization and think that their children could never be lured offline to meet someone or bevictimized through the Internet.

Shocking statistics from a recent national survey conducted by the Crimes Against ChildrenResearch Center revealed that many youths, nearly 20 percent of those using the Internet, arevictims of online sexual solicitation. Two-thirds of the solicitations took place in chat rooms and70 percent of the solicitations happened when the youths were using computers at home. When facedwith a sexual solicitation, 49 percent of the respondents did not initially tell anyone. The surveyalso found that simply surfing the Internet exposes 25 percent of youth to unwanted sexual materialin the form of pornography and bestiality.

Some parents mistakenly believe that giving teens privacy while they use the Internet is somesort of rite of passage and that somehow their child earned that freedom. If you are a parent usingthe Internet as either a rite of passage or as a babysitter to keep your child occupied, you shouldknow that sexual predators are counting on you not to supervise your children and that unsupervisedsurfing on the Internet can risk exposing children to material that will forever change the waythey look at the world.

Parents can easily protect their children from online predators and from unwanted sexualmaterial by monitoring their children's use of the Internet, by not allowing children to createpersonal profiles, by keeping the family computer in a common space, by sharing e-mail accounts, bysetting parental controls and by reporting inappropriate e-mails or instant messages to theInternet provider or to law enforcement if necessary.

The best piece of advice I can give parents is to pay attention. There are predators out thereright now, waiting for your child to enter a chat room. You can significantly reduce the potentialof your children being victimized by carefully monitoring their use of the Internet.