Saturday, July 1, 2017

Predators in Our Midst

I am occasionally sought out by friends, relatives and colleagues because of my experience in working with children in therapy, what normal development looks like vs a concern, child welfare issues, reporting child abuse. I am happy to help and enjoy following the stories that are brought to me to see how they resolved over time.
Someone I know well called to ask my opinion recently. She was concerned that her early teenaged son had been be-friended by an adult male. She knows this person but discovered that the two of them had been having an ongoing daily back and forth conversation via email. Only when the youth had been invited out to an event with him did he have to ask his mother for permission.
What she found out is that this person works at the youth's school, has held events for students outside of the school's purvue and had requested all of the student's personal email addresses. Her son also admitted to the daily messages and defended them, saying he was glad to have found a friend who is supportive and wanted to be trusted. My friend was surprised at this pushback but realized that the adult male was likely responsible. I gently said, "It sounds like he's being groomed," and I could hear the relief in her voice. No, you're not crazy.
When your child is being groomed, the parents are as well. The person wants to gain your trust, and often they are in a position of trust. When they begin to test that trust, you begin to question yourself - which explains the relief my friend felt. They will make you think you are crazy and a terrible person for ever thinking such things about them. In a nutshell there are stages of grooming, the following are the most agreed upon:
1. Targeting the victim. My friend's son was among many until it appeared he was responsive to the adult. He wants and enjoys attention and struggles with friendships.
2. Gaining the victim's trust. This adult most likely has written, you are growing up now, you can make decisions for yourself. You don't always have to ask or tell your parents everything.
3. Filling a need. I can take you places you can't go on your own, that your parents won't let you.
4. Isolating the victim. I'm your friend, they are not your friends. Only I can do xyz for you.
5. Sexualizing the relationship. It is not believed that this took place for my friend's son but that would be the next goal for the adult.
6. Maintaining control. Keeping the victim from disclosing, using threats and other coercion.

My friend was right to pay attention to her raised hackles. She is angry that a seed has been planted that had already worn away at her relationship with her son. She asked me for some "magic words" to say to her son since she was not feeling clear-headed enough to verbalize something to him that would be understood fully.  So here is what I sent:
I've been trying to find the right words to explain to you why I am so worried about you right now. It isn't anything that you've done but it may be because you believe that the adults in your life are safe. I want that to be true -but recently when it came to my attention that you had an ongoing relationship with an adult it raised a red flag for me. There are some adults who don't believe that they are crossing a boundary when they befriend someone much younger than themselves. This person is probably telling you that you were getting older now and that your mom and dad are probably over protective and they don't trust you yet; but you have good instincts and good StreetSmarts and you don't need to tell them everything. When someone tells you things like that there's a word for it- it's not the same as manipulation. When an adult is making an effort to prepare you for more to come in that relationship -it's called grooming. They put themselves in your life as a person who is the only one who understands you and at the same time they drive a wedge between you and the adults who really care for you and will protect you. That way they will be the only person you have to go to for help/ advice and that is when you will be most vulnerable. There are some adults who do not believe that a physical relationship with the child is wrong. I pray to God that nothing of that nature has happened at this point. But I am genuinely concerned that the objective of your friend is to do you harm. In saying that- I know you're upset. I know you feel that you can protect yourself. I'm here to tell you that you cannot possibly protect yourself. These adults are extremely skilled at what they do. You need a safe adult to help you. I am going to need every written communication that you have had with him and I need you to now block his email address so that he can no longer contact you. I need your word that you will not disobey me on this. It is for your safety and your protection and it is because I love you very much and I would do anything to keep you from harm. 

Most parents' first instinct is probably more raw - we want to lay down the law right off the bat. "You better not ever ever see that guy or write to that guy again," with a lot of cursing perhaps thrown in.
The thing is, it will harm the parental relationship. The teen will likely push back even harder. "He said you were going to do/say that!" and then you have more secrecy to be concerned about. It is best to approach it within the context of your close and loving relationship. Spend some time building on that with some quality time and attention. Follow up on the information, make a report to the police if there is more to the story, and then keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground.

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