Grooming is a professional term used to describe the calculated and gradual process by which an offender sexually abuses a child. It is a horrifyingly planned and manipulative act that makes victims of sexual abuse feel complacent and adds an additional layer of protection for the offender. Professionals in the field describe various versions of stages and steps in the grooming process which essentially sum up to...
- Establishing Trust: Child sexual abusers are typically not strangers or someone who can easily be identified as dangerous. They are often nice, friendly, trustworthy "pillars in the community"--people that parents would feel comfortable allowing their child to have isolated contact with. With that, an offender may seek positions where he or she has easy access to vulnerable children. This could include working at a daycare, dating a single parent or volunteering for a youth serving organization. For example, former football coach Jerry Sandusky was described by many as a "saint", "a kid at heart" and a "lovable goofball." He was someone the community revered and trusted. Sandusky created a non-profit organization which served under-privileged boys in the community and was hailed by the US president as being a shining light of charity. As such, adults were not concerned that Mr. Sandusky had isolated contact with children. In 2011, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of abusing multiple boys from his non-profit organization. Although this story gained national attention and is among the most publicized, it is by no means unique.
- Building a Relationship: Over ninety percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts. In the grooming process, the offender will seek an isolated and often secretive relationship with the child. This could include gaining the child's favor by buying him or her expensive gifts, meeting the child's unmet needs, and being actively involved in the child's interests. The offender will often treat the child as if he or she is older and convince the child that they have a "special" relationship. A current media example that highlights this concept is the HBO special film The Tale. The Tale is based on a true story of an adult who grapples with the fact that the childhood relationship she remembered having with an adult was indeed sexual abuse. Although difficult to watch, The Tale provides a poignant story from a sexual abuse survivor of how she was groomed and manipulated.
- Breaking Down of Physical Boundaries: Once a relationship is established, an offender will gradually desensitize a child to physical touch and then escalate the physical contact. In interviews, child sexual abusers described purposefully creating opportunities for physical contact such as playing wrestling games or cuddling and would "accidentally" touch private parts. Once a child was used to a certain behavior, they would slowly escalate the physical touch. A current example is the recently publicized conviction of USA gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, who abused multiple underage gymnasts. In testimonies, victims described a trusting relationship and gradual escalation of physical contact that started with massages or innocuous touch and overtime escalated to aggravated sexual assault.
What Can You Do?
Although child sexual abuse occurs in isolated situations, grooming dynamics can often times be observed by adults. If you witness a situation where an adult is seeking isolated situations with a child, develops an inappropriate relationship with children or is breaking physical boundaries--take immediate action, regardless of how trusted that adult may be. If we set clear protective boundaries with children and intervene when those boundaries are broken, then we can create a safer environment for children in our community.
About the Author
Katia Gonzalez works as the Community Outreach Coordinator for Alliance For Children. She educates adults in Tarrant County on how to prevent, recognize signs and responsibly report suspected child abuse. Last year, with Katia spearheading the initiative, Alliance For Children educated over 3,200 Tarrant County adults. Along with this, Katia's passions include reading, baking, traveling and spending time with her husband and dogs.