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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Q&A with Mary Ellen O'Toole - FBI profiler

I have a special treat for everyone today. It's a Q&A with Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD, whose book Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us was just published. She's a retired FBI profiler who worked on the Unabomber case, as well as Columbine, Elizabeth Smart, Polly Klaas and others you've no doubtedly heard of. I just started reading the book, but didn't want to hold this up until I finished and reviewed it (I'm not the fastest reader).

Note that this is not a light-hearted Q&A and it's not appropriate for your kids to be reading without your supervision. Also note that I made up the questions - they're not indicative of my personal life (e.g. I LOVE my neighbors and they are not in the least bit creepy).

Q: We're new to the neighborhood. The next-door-neighbor seems kind of creepy. Should I trust my instinct and tell the kids to stay away, or am I unfairly judging the person?

A: That depends on your definition of creepy. Some people define “creepy” as someone with long hair, tattoos, nose rings or some other physical trait. But those visual characteristics really tell you nothing about whether your neighbor is dangerous. People who appear perfectly normal – who dress nicely, drive nice cars, care for their homes and lawns, and who have a spouse, children and dog—are just as likely to be dangerous as someone who has long hair and rides a Harley.

What you really want to notice is your neighbor’s behavior, especially behaviors that might pose a danger to your family. Does he have substance abuse issues? Is he a little too interested in children? Does he have an extensive gun collection? Are there unrestrained pets in the home that have bitten people in the past? Does your neighbor complain about everyone in his life and collect injustices as if they were prized coins or stamps? Is he the kind of person who blames everyone else for his problems and never lets go of a grudge? All of these could point to trouble.

In the end, your children are not yet psychologically ready to make important decisions about who to trust and who not to, so your safest option is probably a rule that requires no interpretation on their part. For instance, it might be, “Do not go into any neighbor’s home or car without checking with me first.”

Q: We're new to a school and we're only briefly meeting some of the parents. Are we paranoid in being concerned about whether a parent /grandparent/caregiver is going to molest our child (or worse)? What questions do I ask? How do I interpret the answers?

No, you are not being paranoid. You are being careful. That said, you’ll be able to rest easier if you learn how to assess people for danger. This will allow you to sort parents into different categories including: “probably okay,” “might not be okay,” and “need more information.”

Many people, however, make mistakes when they try to screen other parents for safety. They automatically trust other parents whose lives are similar—whose kids play the same sports, go to the same school, or live in the same neighborhood. This is not a good idea especially if that other parent does not know how to assess people for dangerousness.

To be able to thoroughly screen any parent or caregiver, you really want to know what goes on behind closed doors, and you want to know about much more than whether or not that person might be a pedophile.

You want to know:

·         Are there loaded guns in the house and, if so, is it possible for the children to access them?
·         Does this couple own porn or violent videos?
·         Does either parent drink excessively or do drugs including over-the-counter drugs?
·         Is either parent verbally or physically abusive?
·         Do any members of the family have anger management issues?
·         Does anyone in the family engage in sexually inappropriate behavior?
·         Are there animals in the house? If so, are they child-friendly?
·         Are hazardous substances like cleaning fluids, pest control chemicals and flammables kept out of reach and safely stored?
·         Is either parent careless with smoking, cooking or baking and likely to accidentally start a fire?
·         Are there other children in the home? If so, what is their disposition? Are any of them likely to bully, abuse, or threaten your children?
·         Who else comes into the home? Who else has access to the children?
·         Does either parent have a criminal record and for what? Do they associate with people who have criminal records and if so, for what?
·         Have these new neighbors had problems with families in previous neighborhoods where they’ve lived?

Are you thinking, “Who could ask such questions? My neighbors would think I’m a paranoid freak if I asked such things!” You have a point. These are not the kinds of questions that you can ask in rapid fire while standing in line at a school bake sale. They could be seen or interpreted as offensive and neighbors would become defensive. If they had something to hide they would make sure to hide it. But you can find out the answers to such questions over time by getting to know these parents before you allow them to have unsupervised access to your children.

Q: I was walking home from the bus/train station in the pouring rain, and someone pulled over and offered me a ride, in our nice, safe town. How can I tell if the person is safe to ride with?

Unfortunately, you can’t. You can’t tell whether or not someone is a serial killer by what they look like. Serial killers, in fact, know how to appear harmless and they know how to disarm you with their charm. That’s how so many of them are able to lure so many people into their cars.

But getting into the car with a possible serial killer is the least of your worries. Serial killers are very rare. What’s a lot more likely is that you might catch a ride from someone who:
·         Texts and drives or practices other dangerous or distracting driving behaviors;
·         Does not have insurance that’s up to date;
·         Has drugs in the car that could get pinned on you if discovered by the police;
·         Is operating an unreliable vehicle with airbags, seatbelts and other safety features that are not working properly;
·         Has a neurological condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease that could impair her response time in breaking, swerving to avoid an accident, or otherwise taking some type of action needed to drive a car safely;
·         Drinks alcohol or takes drugs—legal or illegal;
·         Has a bad driving record or prior incidents of aggressive driving or receiving multiple tickets or warnings;
·         Is driving a stolen vehicle.

In this situation, the best option is not to accept the ride. You don’t need the aggravation or worry. It’s better to get wet than to take the risk.

Q: I'm newly single and dating again, how can I pick someone who will not only be good to me, but to my child/children as well?

Try to go beyond your feelings, which are generally not as accurate, and take note of what you know about his behavior. Think about these questions:

1.      How does he treat other people in his life? Are there any patterns? Does he generally treat people with the compassion and respect you’d want him to use with your children? Or is he rude, sarcastic, and demeaning?
2.      What does he say about other people in his life? Is he generally positive about most people and situations? Or does he blame all of his problems on others? If the latter, he might not take ownership for his behavior, which is a red flag both for your future relationship and his ability to interact with your children.
3.      How does he behave? Does he frequently take part in high-risk behavior that you would not want your children exposed to? For instance, is he an aggressive driver? Does he frequently drink too much? Is he impulsive—acting without thinking about the long-term consequences?

Let’s say all of that checks out. Then introduce him to family and friends and then eventually your children slowly and over time. Start with short visits and then progress to longer visits. Give everyone who meets him—especially your children—a chance to voice how they feel about him and take their feedback seriously. Try not to lead them into saying what you want, though. Ask, “what do you think about Bill?” instead of “isn’t Bill wonderful?”

Q: Our area is really ethnically and culturally diverse. How can I read someone's personality, when there could be cultural/language issues involved?

A: This will make your job more challenging, but not impossible. Learn as much as you can about the person’s ethnic and cultural differences. Find out what is normal and not normal behavior for that culture along with behavior that is considered polite and impolite.

Thank you to Ellen for answering all these questions! Go read her book.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, is a former FBI profiler and author of DangerousInstincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She has tracked down, interviewed or studied some of the world’s most infamous criminals including the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway), the Serial Killer of Baton Rouge (Derrick Todd Lee) and the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski). She also worked the Columbine, Elizabeth Smart, Polly Klaas and many other high profile cases. You can learn more about her and her book at  

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