The line differentiating a close, personal relationship between an adult and a child and one that is paving the way for potential abuse can be razor thin.
At first, they can look the same; a special bond between the two. The child will confide with the adult, share secrets and talk about their feelings. The adult is someone to lean on, a shoulder to cry on, is a mentor and a source of comfort.
But there’s a reason for the similarities: It’s called “grooming,” a slow-evolving process in which an adult predator can gain the trust and comfort of a child they target for abuse by taking advantage of certain vulnerabilities.
“Certainly, we’re all susceptible to being taken advantage of and manipulated,” said Dr. Michael Jansen, a psychologist with Holland Hospital who provides outpatient services in behavior management and psychological assessments for children. “With that said, there are factors that lead to children being more susceptible.
Primarily, that is the development of their brain, especially the prefrontal cortex.
This portion of the brain, a cerebral cortex covering the front part of the frontal lobe, is responsible for “our executive function skills,” Jansen said. That includes the understanding of cause and effect, grasping consequences, problem solving, decision making, impulse control and the development of social skills.
The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the age of 20-25, and some research suggests even as late as 30 years old, Jansen said.
“When your prefrontal cortex isn’t as developed, you’re not as adept to making good decisions or understanding actions,” he said.
Establishing trust and comfort
The process rarely starts from nothing. The relationship is usually founded on some prior familiarity.
“In a majority of the cases we’re talking about, there is already a level of trust, some sort of relationship, whether that be familial or something else,” said Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Det. Michael Tamminga, the primary investigator into child abuse cases in the county.
It is that initial comfort that can provide a foundation for advancing the relationship, beginning with an emotional connection.
“They pay special attention, they talk to them,” Children’s Advocacy Center’s Clinical Coordinator Shyra Williams said of the predators toward children. “They are the ones that are there for you when your parents are being so terrible to you.
They are the comfort when comfort is needed. They are the motivator when encouragement is needed.
“A relationship is built on a give-and-take. While we don’t keep score, in a relationship, there is giving with some expectation of something in return,” Jansen said.
Grooming begins with the giving, which can be different during different stages of development and ages.
For younger children, it can come in the form of “things;” candy, stuffed animals or toys. As children get older, they have different needs, ranging from money to transportation to friendship.
“As a child develops, being part of a group or being socially involved, having friends, is extremely important,” Jansen said, which can make even young adults, especially those with poor social skills, vulnerable to manipulation.
“A 12- or 14-year-old is very socially driven,” he said. “A child is going to be more vulnerable if this child is an outcast or is not getting those needs from others, including social relationships.
“An adult telling me as a 12-, 14- or 16-year-old how important and special I am has a huge impact on me.”
The adult is slowly becoming a very important person in the child’s life. They can be an escape from whatever issue the child is dealing with at that stage in their life.
“If what they (the child) want is independence or to be their own person, (a predator) can certainly take advantage of that and encourage rebelliousness, and then use that to their own needs,” Jansen said. “For older children, the relationship is much more emotional before it becomes physical.”
From give to take
After a certain level of comfort and trust has been established, predators often begin to push the boundaries.
“The same time relationally, they have this relationship with the child and are testing the boundaries,” Williams said. “They continue to test the boundaries and see if the child tells or if anything changes.”
This can be anything from making suggestive comments, often in jest, or minimal contact that can be mistaken for accidental touching. It elicits a response, which the adult can gauge — all unbeknown to the child.
“When you’re a child and this predator is giving you these things, there is a lack of understanding (that) there is this expectation of something in return,” Jansen said, noting the undeveloped prefrontal cortex in children. “They don’t have that weariness or suspicion of ‘What is their motivation behind this?’”
The relationship advances beyond just a special bond, but the next step still isn’t always sexual.
“Are they trying to isolate the child? If they are trying to do one-on-one’s with the child, that’s a red flag,” Williams said. “That’s the next step of grooming, isolating a child.”
Technology has provided an arena of privacy for predators to initiate and maintain contact with a child. Both text messaging and social media have become havens for isolating children.
Martin Public Schools junior varsity boys basketball coach Raymond Brenner II is accused of inappropriate communications with a member of his team. According to court records, Brenner was using social media to interact and send nude photos of himself to the underage child.
In the case of former West Ottawa High School teacher Matthew Powell, who pleaded no contest to one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct against a 16-year-old female student, the relationship between the two evolved via texts.
The two exchanged more than 1,200 text messages in less than a month. While there was no direct communication regarding sexual contact, they could, as a whole, be interpreted as grooming.
Powell on several occasions pushed the boundaries of appropriateness, especially that between a female student and a male teacher.
The relationship in that case evolved into one-on-one interactions, with the victim claiming to have met Powell several times alone in parking lots, inside the school and at his home. It was these three meetings when he groped her.
It’s in these one-on-one events the process often does go from grooming to physical abuse. A child, who to this point has known nothing but positive aspects of this relationship, can’t process that it may be inappropriate. Even if they do, the other aspects of the relationship have become so important they fear losing them.
“The child is able to articulate that they don’t like that part of the relationship, but love everything else about that person,” Williams said. “They are afraid of losing the positive aspects of the relationship.
This fosters secrecy, which can make child sexual abuse tough to identify.
Williams said there is no cut-and-dry way to spot sexual abuse, but the best way is to understand the child and his or her personality.
She said signs of abuse include sudden incidents of acting out and getting into trouble, avoiding certain people, nightmares, anxiety, depression, tantrums and seclusion.
Williams said anyone with any level of suspicion should contact a counselor at Children’s Advocacy Center or speak with social services, even if it’s just to discuss if the suspicion is warranted.
“Call and talk to a counselor,” she said. “Report it to professionals and let them decide if there is validity or concerns.”
For more information or for anyone who suspects child abuse and wishes to report it, contact Jewish Community Watch at (718) 841 7056 or your local police department/special victims unit. In NYC, call the sex crimes report line: 1 (212) 267-RAPE.