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Guide to preventing child abuse

As Freedom From Abuse travels around the country delivering training in schools and community venues, a number of questions crop up time and again. The sections below offer a short guide to some of the most common questions parents and carers ask us about the grooming and abuse of children.

What is grooming?

Grooming is a carefully prepared planning process like a “courtship” delivered over time where both a child and its family are targeted by the abuser. The sex abuser establishes a false trust and a “special” friendship is established between the three parties to create a safe environment for abuse to take place. Most cases of abuse are established through the abuser’s “grooming” ritual, it is the preamble to sexual abuse.

Abusers need to be sure that targeted children never release any information about the eventual sexual activities. They do this by cunning manipulation of trust – of both parents and children – and by distorting the essence of secrets. Parents and carers are often “groomed” to gain their trust BEFORE the target child is “groomed”.

Here’s what one young victim, who was successfully “groomed” for years along with his family, had to say:

“How could I have said No? I didn’t know I had said ‘Yes’!” I thought he was my best friend. I never had a friend like him before, and nobody had ever made me feel that special! It didn’t feel like abuse. Only when I was older did I understand what had been happening.”

What are the warning signs of abuse?

Common warning signs of abuse:

  • Lack of trust in adults
  • Unaccountable fear of particular places or a particular adult
  • Withdrawn, clingy or introverted behaviour
  • Running away
  • Girls taking on mothering roles
  • Truancy from school
  • Problems with school work
  • Inability to concerntrate
  • Low self esteem, insecurity
  • regressing to younger behaviour (eg bed wetting)
  • Nightmares and general sleeping problems
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Stealing
  • Drug/Alcohol/Solvent Abuse
  • Displays of sexual awareness beyond their actual age
  • Physical and mental difficulties
  • Bruises/Scratches/Bite Marks
  • Secretive
  • Suicide attempts/general depression
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Anorexia/Eating Disorders (Significant weight change up or down)
  • Difficulty in walking or sitting
  • Itching/sores
  • Pregnancy
  • Recurring urinary/vaginal infections
  • Nervous complaints, regular illness, tummy aches etc
  • Sexually Transmitted Desease
Why does abuse happen?

The reason is two-fold: (1) available information fails to clearly identify the very real threat posed by abuse; and (2) parents’ knowledge is incomplete and/or inaccurate.

The problem is compounded because, invariably, establishments that house paedophiles close ranks when issues are exposed. This is unacceptable for many reasons but mostly because it fails to address the problem or support the child, the family or even the paedophiles themselves.

Parents who realise the prevalence of child abuse and can recognise paedophiles’ behaviour are better able to protect their children. However, we should remember that some parents are also abusers.

It is unrealistic to expect schools, the traditional Child Protection Agencies and the Police to have sole responsibility for this. All parents and any adults who work with children must also take a positive stance to protect them.

People who abuse children should receive an appropriate custodial sentence and relevant rehabilitation regardless of their position in society.

Who are the abusers?

It is important to start by saying that the traditional image of an abuser as being a dirty old man is inaccurate – the abuser is invariably not a stranger.

An “opportunist” stranger will probably abuse a child once, and perhaps continue to abuse other children. This type of abuser has severe sexual problems. Some are shocked by their actions of impulse and consequently severely harm the child. Approximately 1% of sexual abusers are in this category.

FACT: Only 2% of child sex abusers are diagnosed with mental health problems. What does that say about the other 98%?

People who abuse often choose to work with young people. Paedophiles are attracted to places, professions and activities, which allow them access to children. They may act alone or in groups, and can hold respected and powerful positions in the community.

The majority of abuse is someone trusted by the child and family. They often come across as “kind and respectable people” warm and approachable enabling them to get close to the child.

A common remark is:, “He is so good with children”. Or “Children seek his company and love to be around him”.

This approach requires a great deal of effort on the part of the abuser and is called “grooming.”

Female sex offenders

“Surely women don’t do such things?” – Yes they do!

In a cohort researched survey regarding 111 female sex offenders 77% had abused children and almost two thirds of the women had co offended with a male co offender.

Their backgrounds are on average problematic with sexual abuse being prominent at 31%, mental disorders were also prominent at 59%.

Using their analysis researchers distinguished there are 4 prototypical offender types.

The study identified the young assaulter and the rapist who are relatively young solo offenders. Two further prototypes are, the psychologically disturbed co-offender and the passive mother and the older women. They mostly abused their own children together with their male/intimate partner.

The re-offending rate of female child sex offenders is extremely low and significantly lower than that of male sexual offenders.

What behaviour should alert us?

Sexual Abuse begins with grooming, a covert friendship, establishing trust, BEFORE it becomes touching or progresses to anything of a sexual nature.

Sexual abusers carefully introduce “grooming” the child into a sexual abuse relationship over a long period of time, normally years. Careful preparation is the key to its success!

Sexual abusers often test the child to see if it tells. They play on the child’s natural fear, embarrassment or guilt about what is happening to them. Then they use this to convince them, no one will believe them.  Sometimes, they may use threats and punishment (or threat of punishment?) to dissuade a child from telling.

Other things you should know about sexual abusers:

  • Sexual abusers may have adult sexual relationships even with the child’s parents.
  • Sexual abusers may be abusing their own children or stepchildren.
  • Sexual abusers may use pornography.
  • Sexual abusers use the Internet.
  • Sexual abusers tell the child lies about their parents in order to keep control.
  • Sexual abusers seek opportunities to be alone with a child.
  • Sexual abusers can be extremely plausible and parents are convinced the interest in their child is very innocent.
  • Sexual abusers also often use ‘grooming’ techniques.  Grooming could be compared to an old fashioned courtship. Slowly paced and thought through, it’s more than friendship; it has a well-planned end goal!

As parents and carers, we should be teaching our children to protect their private space. For instance, we should tell them “You don’t have to sit on someone’s lap if you do not wish to do so, or kiss them, or be hugged”.

Some sexual abusers use bribes, favours or gifts. But ALL sexual abusers use force even if it’s simply the misuse of power of authority over a child.

Some sexual abusers lead the child into “fun games” which appear to be “innocent” tickling or cuddling, encouraging children to sit on their laps which may turn into UNWANTED physical touching or masturbation.  This may progress into sexual intercourse.

Sexual abusers tell the child that what is happening is not wrong!

Sexual abusers distort the power of secrets!

Sexual abusers are well organised, very patient, manipulative and sophisticated in the ways they attach themselves to a family.

When do abusers strike?

Sexual abusers often target hard-pressed families who are facing difficulties. Single parent families are particularly at risk. Working Mums, Dads working long hours are at risk. For example; the “absent father”. Mortgages and bills have to be paid and the fathers sometimes have jobs which take them away from home.

Families facing emotional difficulties such as death, redundancy and divorce are also a target. The abuser will appear helpful to these families to alleviate their stress zones.

BE AWARE: there are Child Sex Abusers working within their own families both make and female.  Many girls are sexually abused by their own peers at school.

Gradually, the abuser may start to offer help with money or time caring for the children, giving parents a break with trips and outings. They can “worm” their way into a situation for years, lurking and waiting their moment.

They offer the child gifts, toys or favours. Beware of adults who are overly keen at placing children on their laps, watch how they do so! Lap sitting should be discouraged, particularly as the child grows beyond a young infant!

PAEDOPHILES ARE PATIENT: they take their time, years in some cases, to prepare the child with touch and nudity, expressing feelings of love and “specialness”.

They may target only one child within a family.

Be aware of anybody showing an ongoing, exaggerated interest in a child, it may not be  as innocent as it seems.

Statistics from Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit May 2004 of PROVEN and REPORTED crime states:

60% of abused children are abused by blood relatives

30% by friends and neighbours

10% by strangers

90% of children who are sexually abused knew their abuser!

Which children are most at risk?

“Most sexual abuse happens within the family home or familiar surroundings and is carried out by someone well known to the child”. (NSPCC)

Sexual abusers rarely pick children at random. Skilled at identifying children who may be vulnerable to their approach, they are likely to single out a child who is:

  • Too trusting
  • Lacking love and affection
  • Lonely or bereaved
  • Low in confidence
  • Bullied
  • Disabled
  • Not good at communicating
  • In care or away from home
  • Already a victim of abuse

Sometimes, they will choose a child who is eager to succeed in sport or in school or who has interests which make it easy for the abuser to get ‘under the radar’ and manipulate that child.

Some sexual abusers may fixate on children of a particular age, gender, ethnic background or physique. Others will focus on children who are vulnerable and easily accessible.

Abusers are very unlikely to opt for a confident, happy, well-adjusted child. So, if you want to protect your children, bring them up to be confident, happy and well-adjusted and educated about an abuser’s behaviour. It’s their (and your) best defence against your child being abused.

What can parents and carers do?

Don’t assume you will be able to tell if your child is being abused. Most adults miss the signs. And NEVER assume your child will tell you. Few, if any, children do tell and certainly not when they’re children.

Child sexual abuse is a highly devious crime and abused children feel guilty and ashamed. This is probably the main reason children don’t tell. It’s up to the ‘responsible adults’ to teach children how to effectively protect their Personal Space.

“If only I …” is a very difficult and destructive maxim to live with.

Never presume someone is safe just because they don’t have a Criminal Record. As far as child abusers are concerned, lack of a Criminal Record is not a guarantee of innocence. All you can safely assume is they haven’t been caught and convicted.

Abusers induce fear into the minds of the abused. They challenge them by saying things like:

  • Who will believe you?
  • No one’s going to believe you!
  • You didn’t stop me!
  • You enjoyed it!
  • It’s your own fault!

To protect themselves from discovery, abusers ‘groom’ parents and other responsible adults by adopting 2 main tactics. They try to make their ‘target children’ look like troublemakers and/or persuade the grown-ups the child is not to be trusted.

The abuser plays a game of power and control.  It’s a mind game as well as a sexual act. The family is under a similar control or ‘spell’ because the abuser has taken time to build their trust.

When a child does not disclose their abuse, it’s not because the child is weak. It’s because of the strength of the abuser’s manipulation.

In many cases, what the abuser does to a victim’s mind is far more devastating than anything that’s done to their body.  It’s almost impossible to eradicate the effects of the fear and the shame that’s induced by the abuser. The longer the period of control, the worse the damage is.

If we really want to protect children, we need to make it much more difficult for abusers to come between children and their parents and carers. One way we can do this is to encourage self-confidence in our children. Some ways we can do this are:

  • Explain good and bad secrets
  • Talk to your children and LISTEN to what they tell you
  • Be clear about when touching is OK and when it’s NOT OK
  • Tell children they do not HAVE to be hugged or touched
  • Tell them with whom they can talk about the situation, someone who can help.
  • Choose childcare sensibly

If a child is unhappy about anyone who cares for them, or is not relaxed about one-to-one tuition, for example, ask them ‘WHY’ they feel that way.

Set and respect family boundaries.

  • Check out anyone showing exaggerated interest in a child.
  • Check refusal to allow child privacy. A child is allowed its personal space.
  • Check on anyone insisting on time alone with a child, with no interruptions.
  • Check on those who insist on physical affection.
  • Check on anyone showing extra interest in a child’s sexual development.
  • Check anyone who spends more time with children rather than their own age peer group.
  • Respond to your instinct as animals do with predators. Stay away!
  • Don’t let logic block your actions or reactions.

Pay attention to your natural instincts

Child abusers do not respect position, power or personality. Child sexual abuse can happen in any family. So don’t be complacent!  YOU and your family could be a target. If you feel uncomfortable about someone who is around your child or your child shows signs of discomfort with anyone, pay attention. By the time the police arrive at your door to tell you your child has been abused, it’s too late. There is no way back to life as it was before abuse.