Understanding how perpetrators gain access to children and are able to continue to sexually abuse them is critical to preventing child sexual abuse. More than 90 percent of children who are abused sexually are abused by someone they love and trust. Often, the perpetrators are people trusted by the family of the child. Perpetrators use a tactic called “grooming” to gain and maintain access to children.
At the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center, every year we serve hundreds of children who are victims of severe abuse. We served 347 children in 2020 and many of the cases involved sexual abuse. We have seen the effects of grooming, and we want to share that information with our community, so people can use that knowledge to protect their children.
Grooming is the deliberate process abusers use to gain trust of the child and of the child’s family.
By grooming, abusers gradually initiate and maintain sexual relationships with victims, according to Darkness to Light.
Grooming takes time, and it starts long before the sexual abuse occurs. The offender slowly overcomes natural barriers through grooming, which often looks like a close relationship between the perpetrator and the child (and often, with the child’s family). Grooming becomes easier for offenders when they are well-known and respected in the community, which is sometimes the case.
Grooming begins with targeting a child
Grooming develops in stages, starting with targeting a child. Perpetrators look for targets with perceived vulnerabilities, such as a chaotic home life, lack of parental oversight, neglect or isolation. The offender starts paying special attention to the child.
Offenders gain the trust of the child and the child’s caregivers by calculatingly providing needed support. They aim to lower suspicion and gain trust, while at the same time they gather more information about the child and the family.
Gift giving, helping the child and/or the family
Now that they know what the needs of the family and the child are, perpetrators start filling needs. They may give gifts, offer financial help, flattery and emotional support.
Creating one-on-one situations with the child
The offenders find opportunities to isolate the child. They create situations in which they are alone with the child, such as babysitting, coaching, trips. Perpetrators try to make the child feel they have a special relationship with the child, that they understand the child better than anyone else.
Initiating sexual contact
When the perpetrator establishes emotional control over the child, he or she tries to initiate sexual contact. Offenders may use pictures and create situations in which both the offender and the child are naked, swimming, for example.
When the sexual abuse begins, the perpetrator maintains it through threats, blame, and emotional manipulation. The child might think that keeping the secret is less damaging than exposing the offender and disclosing the offender’s acts.
How to prevent it?
It’s important to recognize red flags and react appropriately. Most cases of abuse happen in one-on-one situations. Avoid letting your child be alone with an adult. Gift giving and adults who are extremely interested in your child may be red flags. If you notice some of the red flags, let the person know, be specific when you describe behavior that’s inappropriate, and establish clear boundaries. If you have any suspicion that your child is being abused, report it immediately to the child abuse reporting hotline at 877-237-0004 or local law enforcement.
Communicate with your child. Let your children know they can speak with you about anything, and ensure your children you will be there for them to support them.
The Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center offers free child abuse prevention training to community members. To learn more, visit coffeecountycac.org and follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media.
Photo of Director Joyce Prusak