The word ‘grooming’ has been in the news a lot during the summer and fall as more children are returning to school in person, post-COVID. Why is that? What is grooming? How would a parent recognize it and what should they do if they suspect their child is being groomed?
All of us would agree, children should be protected and allowed to age/mature without experiencing sexual trauma or exploitation. They should be allowed to have a normal childhood.
Unfortunately, in today’s culture, the threat of child sexual exploitation/trafficking is very real. Child sexual exploitation is ubiquitous. It can occur in the home, school, neighborhood, and online. It begins with grooming. According to Polaris Project:
sex-trafficking rarely begins with kidnapping by a stranger. Instead, sex traffickers groom their victims by using love – romantic love, friendship, and familial love – to manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation…Sex traffickers carefully and methodically work to gain their victims’ trust, create a degree of dependence, and subtly promote the idea that selling sexual services is normal, acceptable, and necessary. Ultimately, successful grooming results in vulnerable people cooperating in their own exploitation and abuse and believing they have made the choice to do so independently.” 1,2
What are Some of the Signs that May Indicate that a Child is Being Groomed or Trafficked?
Shared Hope International offers many online tools to help parents, churches, and others who work with children to identify and respond to warning signs. Here are a few:
- Signs of physical abuse such as burns, marks, bruises or cuts
- Unexplained absence from school: truancy
- Sudden inappropriate dress or sexualized behavior
- Overly tired in class or unable to keep up with studies
- Withdrawn, depressed, or distracted
- Bragging about making or having lots of money
- Displays expensive clothes, accessories, shoes, or a new tattoo (often used by pimps as a way to brand victims)
- Older boyfriend, new friends with a different lifestyle or gang affiliations/involvement
- Disjointed family connections, running away, living with friends, or experiencing homelessness
- Interacting and sharing personal information with sometimes significantly older people online (they may pose as a peer)
- Constant cover-up for an abuser, self-shaming/blaming
- Risk taking behaviors, poor boundaries
How to Recognize Potential Perpetrators
Perpetrators do not fit a specific mold. Most people imagine gang members or drug dealers…but they can be family members, friends at school, teachers, church staff, neighbors, or boy/girlfriends. They can be very charismatic and well-educated. (In 2021, Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics was found guilty of sexually assaulting hundreds of girls). So what characteristics or behaviors should we watch for? Again, referring to Shared Hope International’s resources, here are a few things that may be warning signs to watch for behaviors or characteristics:
- Jealous, controlling, or violent
- Significantly older companions
- Promise things that seem too good to be true
- Is vague about his/her profession
- Takes time to learn a child’s hopes and dreams and exploits their weaknesses
- Encourage victims to engage in illegal activities to achieve their goals and dreams
- May not become sexual or forceful until trust is built
- Encourages inappropriate sexual behavior
- Pushy or demanding about sex
- Expresses financial difficulties to make victims feel obligated
- Accompanies and translates for, or speaks for victims at school or medical appointments
- Befriends a child online through social media, gaming, or apps that provide private
What to do if you Suspect Grooming or Sexual Exploitation/Trafficking
Most experts warn against approaching the victim directly as this may put the victim at more risk from the perpetrator. Keep the phone numbers below in your phone contact list and “If you see something suspicious, MAKE THE CALL.” Calls can be anonymous. Once you report what you are seeing, the person taking your call may ask a few more questions. They will then relay the information to the appropriate authorities.
National Human Trafficking Hotline
1-888-373-7888 (toll-free, 24/7 hotline)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
One Last Thought
Sadly, we are seeing a huge increase in child-on-child sexual assault. Often this type of trauma contributes to victim vulnerability. We must be aware of the influence pornography is having on our children. Whether an adult uses pornography as a tool to groom, or children are exposed to pornography at a young age, it is having a direct impact on the sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors. One study from the UK showed that pornography has caused a 400% rise in child-on-child assaults. So, I encourage every parent to engage in conversations with their children about the risks associated with pornography. We will talk about the role pornography plays in sexual exploitation in a future blog, but don’t wait until then to educate yourself on the influence pornography is having on our young people. I’ve listed a few links in the reference list to learn more about the issue of pornography.