Child safety advocates say there are steps parents can take when looking for a baby sitter to avoid being duped by a sexual predator.

- Check out references in person, says Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, a Santa Monica, Calif. organization that educates parents and children on preventing child sexual abuse. “Ask if you can meet the person for a cup of coffee. If the reference … always has an excuse [for not being able to meet], then your danger radar should go up again.”

- Check with local schools, youth and church groups and ask teachers or youth leaders for recommendations, suggest Rosemary Webb and Jennifer Mitchell, co-presidents of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention, a Shelburne, Vt., organization whose aim is to help prevent crimes against children and youth through education and awareness.

- Don’t hire someone who is overly eager to watch your kids, such as offering to baby-sit for next to nothing or saying: “You and your husband never go out. Why don’t you go out and I’ll baby-sit?” Fitzgerald said.

- If hiring a baby sitter for the evening, have the child bathed and ready for bed before the sitter comes, say Mitchell and Webb. Also, they say, “hire a baby sitter before you ever need them or have two or three, so you’re not at the last minute taking anyone who will come.”

- Focus on “patterns rather than people,” says Eric Hsu, a former law enforcement officer, father and felony prosecutor from Richland, Wash., who speaks out on child sexual abuse prevention. “People are often fooled by labels – ‘Hey, I’m a police officer, I’m a pastor.’ Child molestation is such an equal opportunity crime.”

- Watch out for “grooming” behavior, Hsu says, such as excessive physical horseplay, tickling, and invading children’s privacy, done in an effort to “desensitize a child to sexual stuff … so the child is used to it.”

- Set boundaries. If a parent says “no candy” and a baby sitter gives the child candy, this is a possible red flag, according to experts.

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