How to Recognize Child Sexual Offenders

Who are the people sexually abusing kids? 

90% of the time, a child is harmed by someone they or their family knows and trusts.

A familiar and supposedly trustworthy person might include a parent, sibling, grandparent, stepparent, other extended family, boyfriend of parent, adult friend of family, coaches, clergy (any religion), teachers, any school staff, mentors, babysitters, neighbors, teens, camp counselor, a person they met online, ANYONE.  There is no set profile. 

Most people who sexually abuse children are not “creepy looking strangers”. They are ordinary people—often upstanding citizens—who look just like you and me. One thing they all have in common is that they are looking for access and opportunity to abuse children. 

How do these offenders gain the trust of a child and/or family? 

Offenders are adept at a process called grooming. Grooming is the gradual, subtle process of building trusting relationships with children in order to gain access and time alone with them.  This is all part of the plan to prepare a child for sexual abuse. 

Grooming is deliberate, purposeful and may happen over a period of weeks, months, or years.

The grooming process can occur in person and/or online. The grooming relationship can take many different forms.

The person doing the grooming may be a mentor, coach, boyfriend/girlfriend, authoritative figure (parent, step-parent, parent’s paramour), or a friend of the family.

Remember that 90% of the time, a child is harmed by someone they know.

“… a great tool for parents to bridge the gap in discussing sensitive issues with their children.”

Annmarie Watler, Commander, Investigative Section, North Miami Police Department

I often tell parents to beware of any adult who wants to be with your children more than you do…beware of anyone who seems too good to be true.”

-Ken Lanning 

(Expert on the issue of victimization of children, former F.B.I. Special Agent-Behavioral Science Unit and National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, founding member of the Board of Directors of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children)

The grooming relationship is one of power and control. 

Grooming is a subtle, gradual, trust-building process that is deliberate and purposeful. The groomer is patient; the stages could take a day, a week, a month, a year. The abuser’s goal is to find a child who will be an easy target, and to then begin grooming. This enables the offender to manipulate or coerce the child/teen into sexual activity. Offenders will use gifts, threats, bribes, and blackmail to keep the child silenced. 

Offenders groom their victims by slowly crossing emotional, psychological, and ultimately physical boundaries to desensitize a child. This slow, calculated grooming process leaves the child victim confused, afraid and betrayed, and often feeling that they are at fault. 

Stages of Grooming:

Offenders are looking for access and opportunity.

It is important for all of us to understand the grooming process, especially those of us who supervise children. To prevent sexual abuse, recognizing the signs (red flags) that an offender is grooming a child can stop the process in its tracks.

Stage 1: Friendship & Trust

At first, it may appear that a person is building positive rapport with a child (just like SROs, educators, and others working with children seek to do when creating a positive school climate). Many sexual abuse offenders simultaneously build trust with the child’s family and/or community. If, for example, the offender is a coach, he or she slowly develops a reputation as an awesome and caring coach.

Stage 2: Gifts & Rewards

The offender will often offer gifts and rewards to the child or to the child’s family. Once the child or family receive these items (special treats, trips, technology, etc.) the child and family feel an unconscious indebtedness. And, moving forward, this will make them doubt their instincts if red flags appear. 

Professionals working with children should not single out any one child for extra attention or gifts. “Playing favorites” or wanting to spend individual time with a particular child is a red flag to observers in any setting (school, afterschool program, community center, neighborhood, family). 

Stage 3: Secrets & Threats  

A child who keeps secrets is an offender’s best friend. 

Often offenders (babysitter, teacher, older cousin, neighbor, coach, etc.) will ask the child to keep a secret. It could be something that sounds innocent, like “Don’t tell your grown-up that I let you have ice cream after practice”.  By doing so, they are looking to see if the child will keep the secret and therefore be an easy target

Stage 4: Abuse begins

The offender grooms the child to be desensitized to the offender’s touch.

Slowly but increasingly, the offender has been touching, playing, wrestling, and sharing affection with the child. At some point during this stage, the child is sexually violated. The violation could be physical or non-physical (exposure to inappropriate sexual materials, having pictures of themselves taken, or the child manipulated into sending the offender photos of themselves, etc.).

At this point the child may feel at fault for the abuse and become afraid to disclose. Offenders can instill shame and fear into a child, creating a veil of secrecy which allows the abuse to continue.

Warning Signs that an Offender is Grooming a Child:

  • Paying special attention to one child
  • Desensitizing a child to touch
  • Creating alone time
  • Presenting himself as a sympathetic listener
  • Isolating a child from others
  • Telling a child inappropriate jokes
  • Showing pornography to a child
  • Playing sexual “games” with a child
  • Sharing personal information about his/her sexuality with a child

Listen to

The Grooming Process – One Child’s True Experience

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