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Grooming awareness

Most offenders groom their victims; in other words, they spend time making themselves look nice to their victims and their victims’ families. Many times offenders appear as charming, smart, caring, warm and helpful. Grooming is a process that sometimes occurs over years. It starts by building relationships with potential victims that an offender targets. They may do this by hanging out where children are: schools, malls, playgrounds and parks. They often target children who feel unloved and unpopular and will welcome any adult attention. Children with family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem and who are isolated from their peers are all likely targets.

Grooming also often involves building trusting relationships with adults who are in charge of children and may be overwhelmed. Single parents, homes where parents have to work more then one job and caregivers who are sick or disabled may be seen as easy targets by offenders because there is less time and resources to spend on the child. Often this includes helping out the parent by offering to babysit, give rides and even becoming physically involved with the caretaker. Offenders do whatever they have to do to become a trusted part of their life and gain access to their victim. Successful predators find and fill voids in a child’s life.

Once the offender has built that trust and has access to the child, grooming moves in another direction. They start to prepare the child for a physical relationship. The first physical contact between offender and victim is often non-sexual touching designed to break down boundaries: They may hug the child too long, start to play tickle games or have the child sit on their lap. Non-sexual touching desensitizes the child. It breaks down inhibitions and leads to more overt sexual touching—the offender’s ultimate goal. They may “accidently” leave out pornography or start making comments about a child’s physical appearance. An offender will usually introduce secrecy at some point during the grooming process. Initially, secrecy binds the victim to the offender: “Here’s some candy but don’t tell your mother.” Later on, secrecy often includes threats: “If you tell your mother what happened, she’ll hate you. I'll get in trouble and we'll never see each other again.”

Eventually the touching moves to sexualized touches. The offender may “accidentally” move his hand up the child’s shirt while tickling them, or put their hand down a child’s pants “to keep them warm”. Children most often react confused and unsure of what to do.

Grooming signs to watch for:

  • Having a “special relationship” with the child. Often wanting alone time and spending unusual amounts of time with them.
  • Offering drugs or alcohol to older children or teenagers.
  • Secrets between the adult and child.
  • Becoming “indispensible” to the caregiver; offering to babysitting and/or having the child sleep over night.
  • Buying their victim and/or caregiver gifts or money for no apparent reason (toys, dolls).
  • Pornography in the house that is “left out” or where the child can see or reach.
  • Commenting on the child’s appearance: how beautiful they are, how grown up they look, how they are developing and even how sexy they are.
  • Talking about sexual topics or participating in sexual acts where the child can see or hear.
  • Talking about problems normally discussed between adults, including marital problems and other conflicts.
  • Having a non-sexual physical relationship with the child such as having the child always sit on their lap, tickling the child or rubbing their back constantly.
  • And they almost always offer a sympathetic, understanding ear. “Your parents don’t understand or respect you? I do. I respect you. I care for you more than anybody else. And I love you. I’m here for you.” They take an undue interest in someone else’s child, to be the child’s “special” friend to gain the child’s trust.

What you need to know about sex offenders

The majority of sex offenders are male, although a small percentage is female. The average age of the sex offender is 31. Sexual offenders usually don’t fit the stereotypes of being dirty old men or strangers lurking in alleys. More often, they are known and trusted by the children they victimize. They may be members of the family, such as parents, siblings, cousins or non-relatives, including family friends, neighbors, babysitters or older peers. There’s no clear-cut profile of a sex offender. About 20—30 percent of offenders were sexually abused as children, but others have no such history. Some are unable to function sexually with adult partners and so prey on children, while others also have sexual relations with adults.

Child sexual abuse is so hard for most people to comprehend because people want to believe it only happens when an offender is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but that’s not usually the case. Very frequently, abusers are repeat offenders and a significant percent are adolescents.

  • Family members commit 39% of the reported sexual assaults on children (Snyder, 2000).
  • 56% of those that sexually abuse a child are acquaintances of either the child or the family (Snyder, 2000).
  • Only 5% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger (Snyder, 2000).
  • The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. 50% of those molesting a child under 6 were family members. 23% of those abusing a 12—17 year-old child were family members (Snyder, 2000). 34% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by juveniles. In fact, 7% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by youth under the age of 12 (Snyder, 2000).
  • The younger the child victim, the more likely it is that the perpetrator is a juvenile. Juveniles are the offenders in 43% of assaults on children under age 6. 14% of these offenders are under the age of 12 (Snyder, 2000). Homosexual individuals are no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual individuals. (Jenny, et. al., 1994).

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