Child Sexual Abuse

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Understanding grooming is essential to our work with children. The more we know about grooming, the more we can keep children safe. The challenge for professionals is to disentangle grooming tactics and recognise how it distorts or subverts reality and spins a web of confusion around the abuse.

What is grooming?

  •  Perpetrators of child sexual abuse gain access to and trust of potential child victims and their caregivers by methodically conditioning them.
  •  Grooming is a deliberate, dynamic and subtle conditioning process. It entails gaining a child’s trust, testing their boundaries, manipulating them so they won’t tell and confusing them so they feel responsible for the abuse. It is often carried out over weeks, months or even years before and after the abuse.
  •  Grooming is sometimes referred to as conditioning as it involves getting the child accustomed to the abuse and immune to signs that the abuse is not okay.
  •  Grooming silences children, adults and workers. On their own or, even strung together, these conditioning behaviours may seem normal. That is the intent and goal of the perpetrator. Children or non-offending adults may be blinded to grooming because what they experience in grooming is care and attentiveness.

Grooming children

  • Grooming children can involve isolating the child, creating a situation where the child wants to be around the perpetrator, encouraging secrets, or issuing threats.
  • Grooming often involves making the child feel responsible for the abuse.
  • Be curious about the child’s relationship with both the perpetrator and non-offending adult. Ask children questions about when they spend time with the perpetrator and how much compared with other adults. Did the perpetrator make them feel special, or say nice and loving things to them? Play with them often? Show them lots of affection or buy them gifts?

Grooming the environment

  • In order to gain access to children, perpetrators often groom their environment. Grooming the environment can involve perpetrators making themselves useful or indispensable. They may freely undertake jobs others don’t want to do.
  • Ask other adults how the perpetrator made friends with them or played or spent time with the child in their presence? Did they seek opportunities for time alone with the child? Did they babysit or help with organised activities such as sporting or Scouts?

Grooming adults

  • Grooming non-offending adults (especially mothers) may involve encouraging them to have more of a life outside the home or isolating them to limit the number of people in whom they can confide.
  • Ask non-offending adults about the time they spend in or out of the home or away from the child. What happens with the child at these times? How much time does the abuser spend with the child? When does this happen? Who drives or picks up the child from events?
  • Gather information about what the perpetrator has told the non-offending parent about the abuse. Compare this to the information provided by the police. Don’t present yourself as an expert on the abuse but rather help the non-offending parent see and understand the contradictions between the child and the perpetrators stories.
  • Connect the non-offending adult to groups or services outside the home. This reduces their isolation and may provide them an opportunity to talk with others.
  • Perpetrators may encourage alcohol and drug dependency in non-offending parents to discredit them in the event of a disclosure. Offer support that might decrease isolation or provide support for any alcohol or drug dependency.
  • Keep your mind open to the possibility of trans-generational grooming. Non- offending parents or grandparents may have been conditioned and the strength of ‘groomed’ bonds will have been reinforced over time.

Grooming workers

  • Perpetrators often promote a positive image of themselves. They may present as very helpful and compliant. Be aware that perpetrators may groom workers and try to undermine your sense of reality. Be alert to the fact that perpetrators may try to confuse you and make you question your understanding of a situation.
  • Step back, check in and debrief with colleagues about your thinking and hypotheses about the case including impressions of each carer.
  • Working alone is a risk. Be wary of attempts by the perpetrator to split you from your co-workers.
  • Take note when adults give you stories, especially negative ones about the unreliability of the child. Consider where the story has originated. Think about the child’s behaviour as having a trauma base so that you may have an alternate point of reference to a perpetrator’s ‘compelling’ explanation. Look for the history behind such stories.

Grooming after a disclosure

  • Grooming continues after disclosure and when the abuse has stopped. Conditioning tactics used after sexual abuse are similar to those used during abuse. Tactics include denial or minimisation of abuse, denigrating the child, playing a central role in the child’s life or lying to others.
  • In an attempt to distort the reality of the harm, the perpetrator may launch into courtship with the non-offending parent – weekends away, making them feel special. This moves the parent closer to the perpetrator and distances them from the child. Ask questions about the marital or parental relationship and patterns of activity after a disclosure.
  • Children can physically recover from abuse yet they struggle to recover from being groomed. They want answers to questions about why s/he chose me. Why did they say those things to me? Why did they make me feel like that? As workers we need to place children’s recovery within the grooming process. We need to separate children from the blame  and place responsibility rightly on the perpetrator.

Watch a video on grooming and child sexual abuse from the Research to Practice seminar.