By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog
Discussions of sexual abuse sometimes mention “grooming,” the tactics used by abusers to prepare their victims for abuse. It’s important to recognize grooming behaviors as potential early signs of abuse. In fact, a 2019 independent review of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s child protection policies highlighted the response to grooming behavior as a key area for improvement in the Church’s efforts to prevent abuse.
To learn more about grooming, we spoke to two Milwaukee-area mental health professionals with expertise in sexual abuse and recovery. Dale Bespalec, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, currently in private practice but semi-retired. He previously worked as the chief psychologist and sex offender specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and as a clinical psychologist for Pathfinders, a Milwaukee youth and young adult services organization. He now serves as a mental health and wellness consultant for the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph. Diana Johnstone, MSW, LCSW, works at Pathfinders as manager of the Hand-In-Hand program, which provides outpatient counseling to youth survivors of sexual violence.
What is the purpose of grooming?
“Grooming is how one manipulates an individual to lower their barriers to accomplish something,” Bespalec says. He notes that grooming techniques are used in all kinds of settings, including sales. For example, a car salesman may use grooming techniques to make a customer more likely to buy a car. In cases of sexual abuse, the perpetrator works with the victim and the people around the victim to win them over and encourage them to lower their boundaries. “It’s a complex, fluid process that can change depending on the perpetrator and victim,” Bespalec says.
What are the steps of grooming?
Not all cases of sexual abuse involve grooming. But when a perpetrator does groom victims, it often begins with the perpetrator targeting a person who seems vulnerable in some way, Johnstone explains. That person may be chosen because he or she is easily accessible to the perpetrator, shows signs of low self-esteem, and in the case of kids, lacks supervision from adults. Children who have had adverse life experiences and trauma exposure may be more at risk of being targeted, she adds.
The abuser then goes about gaining the trust of the victim and the family or “system” around that person. This might involve giving gifts, or otherwise filling needs, such as buying groceries or helping with childcare. This can be very confusing, Johnstone notes, because these gestures can simply look like generosity. “These folks can often appear charming, kind, and helpful, and meet a need for the family or the young person, so it can feel really nice,” she says.
The abuser will attempt to get the victim alone. This might involve offers to babysit (in cases in which the victim is a child), or invitations to outings for just the two of them. The abuser will also slowly begin to incorporate physical touch into the relationship. “It can start out seeming kind of innocent,” maybe tickling, or snuggling, “and then gradually moves to a sexualized area,” Johnstone says. The perpetrator may also begin talking about bodies and sexual activity with the victim to normalize these topics.
To maintain control of the victim, perpetrators will encourage the victim to keep secrets from others, saying things such as “This is our secret,” or, more ominously, “If you tell, bad things will happen to your family.”
Are there red flags to watch for?
Attempts to be alone with a person, gift giving, and singling people out for special treatment are all possible signs of grooming. But Johnstone says it’s particularly important to trust gut feelings. “At Pathfinders we talk a lot with our kids about paying attention to those internal signs,” she says. “It’s that ‘uh-oh’ feeling or ‘yuck’ feeling, that internal sense that something doesn’t feel right.”
What can churches and other organizations do to prevent grooming?
Training is essential to help people recognize grooming and prevent situations that allow grooming and abuse to occur. For example, it’s important to establish policies that require that multiple adults be on hand to supervise kids, Johnstone explains.
Organizations also need to establish clear expectations for staff and volunteers regarding boundaries and appropriate behavior. Most Catholic ministries now require training in boundaries and ethics around relationships and specifically sexual matters, Bespalec says. All employees of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as well as volunteers who have contact with children, are required to attend a Safe Environment Education training, which provides education about grooming and warning signs of abuse. Bespalec notes that all staff and friars in Capuchin ministries must attend training and document that they were given information on boundaries. This training is usually updated annually.
What can parents do to protect their kids from grooming?
Teach children about personal space and boundaries, Johnstone says. Every person has a “bubble” of personal space around them, and it’s important to know how to communicate with trusted adults if someone crosses those boundaries into the bubble. She teaches the concept of consent, advising kids that it’s okay to turn down a hug from a relative, for example, if they don’t want one. “We teach that it’s your body, and you should get to make those choices about your body,” she says.
It’s also important to establish honesty and transparency as values in your family, Bespalec says. That means avoiding scenarios in which parents say things like “Don’t tell Dad,” or “We need to keep this a secret from Grandma.” When kids or other family members have concerns of any kind or confide in you, it’s important to listen attentively, Bespalec adds. Make sure they understand that they can come to you with any issue, and you will take them seriously. “This breaks down the isolation and secrets,” he says. “It can limit the soil in which this stuff could grow.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.