Sexual Offenders, It’s Who You Know
We want to keep our children safe, but we are putting them in danger by giving them the wrong information. In school and at home, children are taught to be wary of strangers because strangers may snatch you and abuse you. This is known as stranger danger. Yet, only 5% of children are abused by strangers. 95% are abused by someone they know. Whether that person is a family member or in a position of trust in the child’s life like a teacher, coach, church leader, etc.
Most sexual offenders spend time developing a relationship with a child before becoming sexual with them. This process is called grooming. It starts with the offender identifying a child to target.
Offenders look for vulnerable children, those with unmet needs. There are many possible unmet needs that a child may have.
· Emotional-example, children who are lonely due to lack of friends or limited parental affection.
· Socioeconomic-example, not having enough money to purchase material items the child needs or desires.
· Attention-example, single parent who has to work two jobs to make ends meet.
· Emotional Safety -example, the child is not able to talk about difficulties to a parent.
· Supervision-example, parent gives the child too much freedom for his/her age.
Next, the offender gains the child’s and adult’s trust and gains access to the child. Offenders groom families and communities in a similar way that they groom children. Offenders present as warm, engaging, and non-threatening. They put adults at ease. They are often described as extremely good with children. The offender plays with the child, is fun and understanding and shows interest in the child’s interests. The offender is helpful and reliable to adults. The offender makes adults feel comfortable around him/her so that the adults have no concerns allowing the offender access to the child.
After gaining access the offender plays a role in the child’s life and fills the need he/she originally identified that made the offender target the child. For example, if the child lacks a father figure the offender may fill that role.
The offender finds ways to be alone with the child thereby isolating the child from others. The offender may offer to transport the child somewhere to make the parent’s life easier. For example, transport the children to and from school or to events the parent cannot attend. The offender may isolate the child by offering to babysit for the parent or take the child to special outings like camping or to the zoo.
The offender needs time alone to accomplish his/her objectives. The adults in the child’s life will feel comfortable leaving the child alone with the offender.
The offender also isolates the child emotionally by pointing out differences in how the offender treats the child and how the parent treats the child. The offender may point out how he/she understands the child better or how the parent prefers a sibling over the child. This does not have to be true for the offender to create the optics to make it appear true.
The offender creates a special relationship with the child. It is imperative that the child enjoy his/her time with the offender without this the child will not seek opportunities to spend time with the offender. The offender makes the child feel incredibly special and seen. It is a feeling that the child not only enjoys but one the child may continue to seek throughout their lifetime.
The offender creates secrecy around the relationship with the child. The offender asks the child to keep small and seemingly benign secrets such as don’t tell your parent I gave you a piece of candy. The offender is able to test the child’s ability to keep secrets and sets the expectation that there are things about the relationship with the offender that the child cannot share with others.
After all of these factors are securely in place the offender sexualizes the relationship. The offender may initiate sexual contact with the child or expose the child to sexual situations and/or material.
Lastly, the offender seeks to control the relationship. The offender may control the relationship by threatening that horrible things will happen if the child tells. The offender might tell the child ”If you tell I will get in trouble and go to jail” or the offender might threaten that the child will be taken away and put in foster care. The offender may play on the child’s emotional fears of not being believed or being blamed for the abuse. The offender may threaten physical harm of the child, the child’s pet or a family member. The offender may threaten to abuse a sibling if the child tells.
Grooming is a complex systematic and deliberate manipulation of a child and the significant adults in the child’s life to prepare the child and adults for the abuse. It is imperative that we teach children and adults the signs of grooming. By teaching stranger danger as the predominate strategy of keeping children safe, we are inadvertently placing them in danger. We all must understand that the risk of sexual abuse is in who we know and to whom we expose our children.
photo credit Andre Guerra at Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/G4ZjuxOFD8Y
*For more information https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/grooming-dynamic-of-csa