It made headlines around the world.
Former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse against 10 boys and was sentenced to 30 – 60 years in prison. Like most sexual predators, he had his own mode of operation. Sandusky exploited a charitable foundation he established for troubled boys as a venue to pursue children from unstable home situations, hoping to fill a void of security and stability for those kids. On the surface, the premise seemed noble; however, Sandusky’s intentions were anything but…
Sandusky earned the trust of the boys he molested by spending time with them and making them feel special. He would take them to the Penn State campus, have sleep-overs at his house, and even gave them gifts like tickets to various sporting events. For one victim, the sexual abuse investigation revealed 118 phone calls from Sandusky’s home and cell phones to the boy’s home. As Sandusky earned his victims’ trust, he accelerated his sexual advances by “horsing around”, showering with the boys and eventually sexually assaulting them. Some victims also testified that Sandusky made threats against them if they were to ever disclose the abuse.
Sexual predator grooming — the process of earning a child victim’s trust and compliance — is common among many sexual predators. Predators groom victims for two reasons:
- “Test the waters” to see how a child victim will react or respond to advances.
- Train the child victim for continued inappropriate and more advanced sexual contact.
Grooming enables predators to earn a victim’s trust and can also reduce the likelihood that a victim will disclose the abuse. Grooming can take place in a very short period of time, or through numerous interactions with a child over a longer period of time.
Predators are master manipulators. Not only will they groom child victims, but also parents, teachers and even the community-at-large. They know by earning the trust of people responsible for the care and wellbeing of their targeted child victim(s), doors are opened allowing them easier access to that child(ren). In fact, nearly 60% of abused children are harmed by someone the family knows and trusts.
Signs of Grooming
Grooming behaviors can range from appearing completely innocent to being shockingly inappropriate or even criminal. While not all children who are sexually abused are groomed, many are. Keep in mind, over 90% of children who are sexually abused know, love or trust their molesters… in most cases, the perpetrator is someone known to the family, as well. While it’s important for children to have positive adult role models and influences in their lives, there are behaviors certain people display that should beg the question of every parent, teacher or caring adult, “What are this person’s intentions with this child?”
Be wary of and actively dig deeper if someone:
- Shows an excessive interest in or favoritism towards a child
- Finds opportunities to be alone with the child
- Communicates 1:1 with a child via excessive or secret texts, social media or cards/letters
- Gives special gifts to the child that aren’t given to other children
- Offers special privileges or leniency to the child
- Asks the child to keep secrets or not tell parents about what the adult and child do together
- Engages the child in activities that are not age-appropriate
- Encourages “play” with the child that involves excessive or inappropriate body contact
Please note: Sexual predators typically have more than one child victim. According to the Darkness to Light Foundation, 70% of child sexual predators have up to 9 victims, while 20% have 10 to 40 victims. In Sandusky’s case, 10 boys were involved in the allegations against him. Even Matt Sandusky, one of six adopted children in the Sandusky home, publicly disclosed during the trial that he, too, was sexually abused by Sandusky.
The U.S. Department of Justice, via it’s “SMART” (Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking) program, offers a list of activities that sexual perpetrators find arousing and will employ as part of the grooming process with their victims:
- Bathing a child
- Walking in on a child changing
- Deliberately walking in on a child toileting
- Asking a child to watch the adult toileting
- Tickling and “accidentally” touching genitalia
- Activities that involve removing clothes (massage, swimming)
- Wrestling in underwear
- Playing games that include touching genitalia (playing doctor)
- Telling a child sexually explicit jokes
- Teasing a child about breast and genital development
- Discussing sexually explicit information under the guise of education
- Showing the child sexually explicit images
- Taking pictures of children in underwear, bathing suits, dance wear, etc.
The Internet is a conduit for sexual predators. Online grooming can take place in a variety of forms, including:
- Predators target victims by manipulating information they can readily find on social media. For example, a child posts, “My parents suck!” on Twitter and a predator ‘befriends’ the child to empathize, telling the child things like, “I know exactly how you feel” or “My parents suck, too.” Additional communication ensues and a relationship the child ‘thinks’ is trustworthy is formed.
- Predators will try to isolate child victims online by taking chat room conversations private or starting other ‘offline’ conversations via phone, text, instant message or other 1:1 methods, including meeting in person.
- Online conversations will move from ‘friendly’ chat to topics of ‘love’ or ‘sex’. Predators will often ask children to share photos, and may share pictures of themselves (or who they purport themselves to be). Oh, and predators love webcams.
- Netsmartz‘ “Julie’s Journey” and “Survivor Diaries” are real-life examples of how online grooming occurs. These short videos are terrific tools to utilize when talking with your teen or tween about online safety. Check ’em out!
How do I protect my child from grooming?
I often sound like a broken record, but communication is KEY! Talk, talk and talk again with your kids about body safety and the relationships they have with other people including their friends and yours, immediate and extended family, classmates, teachers, coaches and anyone in their circle. Topics to reinforce with kids to keep them safe from grooming and from predators in general are to:
1) Be sure children know the proper names of body parts and which ones are “private” and “just for them”. It’s important to teach children proper body part names so in the tragic event they are molested, they will know how to describe what happened to them in terms other people can understand. I can’t overemphasize how important this is! I was involved in an interview one time where a child called a penis an “esophagus”… now that’s confusing!
They also need to know which parts of their bodies are just for them, parts that no one should touch for “no good reason” or “just to play a game”. With younger children, always use a washcloth at bath time, and reinforce the importance of always using a washcloth. Ask them to tell you if someone ever tries to clean them skin-on-skin.
Finally, reinforce that keeping body parts private also means NOT letting anyone take pictures of those parts, and to let you know if someone does. Talk with teens and tweens about the dangers of sending naked or partially naked photos of themselves to anyone… even someone they think they can trust.
2) Talk about the differences between a “surprise” and a “secret”. Surprises are supposed to be fun things like celebrating a birthday or special holiday. Secrets are things that people keep between themselves. Reinforce with your children that secrets should never involve touches to private body parts and that if anyone ever asks them to keep a “secret” from their parents, they should immediately tell you. This includes if someone gives them a gift or lets them do “something special”.
3) Reassure children that abuse could never, ever be their fault! If someone tells a child he is to blame, that person is flat-out lying. This point cannot be overemphasized and is a common blame-game tactic used by sexual predators to keep children silent about abuse.
4) Teach children to say “NO!” to any touches to private body parts that are for “no good reason” or “just to play a game”. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve talked with children who found the strength to say “NO!” or resisted a predator’s attempts… and that very action kept them from becoming victims. Again, sexual predators often seek out children who are obedient or compliant. Help your child find the confidence to tell someone “NO!” like they mean it if they are ever in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. Seriously, have them practice using outdoor voices inside — say “NO!” with gusto!
5) List with your child the people in her life she could talk to if she was ever abused. Ask her with which adults she is most comfortable confiding. Is it a parent? Grandparent? Teacher? Talk through that list with your child so she identifies for herself who those confidants would be. Also, discuss the fact that if she were to disclose to someone who didn’t believe her, that she should go and talk with someone else… and keep doing that until someone listens, believes and takes action to protect her.
6) Monitor your child’s online activity. As with other social interactions, it’s important to know what your child is doing online. There is software that can help you monitor his online activity including identifying what websites are visited, as well as specific social media interaction. I’ve heard good things about SpyAgent and Spector Pro. There are a variety of other programs that have received solid reviews, too. For more information, see “Do You Know Where Your Child Is (Online)?“.
Some parents have had tremendous success asking their children to sign a “Phone and Computer Use Agreement” which outlines safety measures and usage parameters by which they agree to abide in order to be granted the privilege of having access to the Internet.
What should I do if I suspect grooming?
Knowing the signs of grooming is key. If someone demonstrates signs of grooming and your “gut” is telling you something may not be right, you should…
- Take a deep breath and remain calm.
- Remove the child from the situation.
- Talk to the child. Ask some basic questions about the child’s relationship with the person about whom you are concerned. For tips on having that conversation, see “7 Step Response to Child Abuse Disclosure“.
- If the child shares information that confirms your suspicions, immediately contact your local Child Protective Services Department or law enforcement agency. Hopefully, you live in an area with a Child Advocacy Center where the child can be interviewed about the alleged abuse in a safe, neutral, child-friendly environment. You can also contact the National Child Abuse Hotline and they will connect you with officials in your area.
- If the child doesn’t confirm your suspicions, you may wish to limit or prohibit 1:1 interaction with the person in question. If the person does continue to have contact with the child, continue monitoring the situation and touch-base with the child on a regular basis to be sure the relationship is appropriate.
Other Articles of Interest
Here’s some interesting information on predator grooming you may find helpful:
- “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away With It“ (The New Yorker)
- “Child Sexual Abuse: 6 Stages of Grooming“ (The Oprah Winfrey Show)
Raising awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse has become Ginger’s life mission. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger regularly blogs about child protection issues and has released a report for parents and other caring adults, “10 Scary Apps.” Ginger can be contacted via her website, “Ginger Kadlec: BeAKidsHero™” at BeAKidsHero.com or find her on Facebook at facebook.com/gingergkadlec.