Part 6: Child predators manipulate by building trust

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(WSAW) -- In Part 5 of the 7 Investigates: Cycle of Abuse series, we shared that in 98% of the child sexual assault cases we studied, the victim knew the suspect. The suspect was only a stranger 2% of the time.

So how do suspects get close enough to assault their victims? You may have heard the term “grooming”, but some professionals who deal with child sexual assault prefer the term “manipulation.” Not all victims are groomed or manipulated, but if a parent can recognize the signs, they may be able to stop an assault before it happens.

Marathon County Child Protective Services Supervisor Christa Jensen says manipulation often starts with normal affection. She gave this example, “So, your uncle and he comes over on a regular basis and my kid always sits on his lap and they play patty cake and you know, he gives her back massages. And then they snuggle and they watch movies together.”

She said those are examples many people would consider to be positive bonding interactions, encouraging even, until it’s not.

"That turns into, 'this child trusts me and now we've been sitting on a couch for a while watching movies or cartoons under this blanket and today maybe my hand ends up on their leg. Child seems okay with that, so maybe my hand moves up their leg."

It is all about creating an atmosphere of trust, she explained, then the perpetrator works to break down the child’s natural boundaries.

Lee Shipway, Executive Director at Peaceful Solutions Counseling said a lot of times perpetrators start with playing innocent games, "then they'll start inserting parts into those games that aren't normal, that are involving, touching, nonsexual touching usually to begin with."

"You might have a child that's been sexually abused their whole life and they were groomed as an infant, as a toddler and this is really normal to them and they might not have even known that they were being sexually abused,” Jensen explained.

“Sometimes when you grow up in a situation, especially in incest situation, you assume and think that that's what every family does,” Shipway noted. “Sometimes it's not until a woman's in her 20s that she's around other people and talking more about more intimate things that she realizes none of her friends did that with their dads or their stepdads.”

Jacqueline Gremler, a forensic interviewer at the Child Advocacy Center says they sometimes have kids, teenagers especially, come in for an interview but don’t understand why they are there. “They're termed as what we say client-victims. Because they often are groomed in a way that makes them feel special, and they do, in their own minds, have a relationship with their alleged maltreater. And so what makes that challenging is, to see them through, and then they grow into adults, and then they get it, and then it's at that point that the victimization has really hit them, that they were taken advantage of.”

While not all perpetrators groom before sexually assaulting a child, when they do it’s intentional and planned out.

"I've had perpetrators say I sit outside of playgrounds at schools and I watched the kids on the playground and I see the ones that never have any friends and nobody wants to play with them,” recalled Shipway. “And that's the one I'll target."

Even if it is a child or teenager the perpetrator already know, often they look for ones that are not as connected, or disenfranchised from their family.

"They typically will want to make that child feel special and like you're more special to me than someone else or to try to get that child to feel like the perpetrator understands them like nobody else does," Shipway said.

The same goes for keeping a positive relationship with the child’s support network.

“That perpetrator is also close to the children's parents or whoever else is in that child's trusted network,” Marathon County Sheriff’s Office Investigations Lt. Jeff Stefonek said, “and they know how to manipulate those people."

"So then if that coach is going to say, ‘oh, I want to take your daughter or your son to the special camp this summer. Oh, the parents were like, oh, it's coach. So and so. Yeah, that's good,’ thinking that they can trust that person when in reality they can't," Shipway said.

Even if the child or someone sees something, Stephanie Hamann, a child and family therapist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin said the perpetrator is prepared. "That person also is going to try and rationalize their behavior if they're questioned about it. Like, "oh, I was just giving her a hug" or "I was just trying to help her relax.”

It’s about control, so threats from putting the child in foster care to murder are common.

“There's been a lot of kids I've worked with who took the abuse because they thought they were saving their brothers and sisters from being abused,” Shipway said. “Because the abuser would say to them, ‘if you allow me to do this, I promise I won't do this to your sister,’ and so you've got three kids and a family who are all being abused thinking they're saving their brothers and sisters from being abused."

The signs of grooming or manipulation are so misleading, a simple list of what to look for will not catch all predators. Child Advocacy Center forensic interviewer Jacqueline Gremler explained "if we could point them out walking down the road, they wouldn't happen and every child would be safe. But there is no one marking that is displayed on that one person to be able to identify who is an alleged mistreater and who is not.”

It is the biggest question Jensen says social services hears from parents of victims: "’How didn't I recognize this? Why didn't I recognize this?' Because it's natural and it happens with people that you trust, people you wouldn't anticipate are going to hurt your child.”

Keeping a close relationship with your child and giving them the words to use and the knowledge to understand whether an assault happened to them Gremler urged is key. "It's really about knowing your child. Talking about body safety, talking about how to self-protect, talking about what sexual assault is, and having those open lines of communication with your child, so that they can identify it, and they can verbalize it to you if something like that happens to them.”