October 18, 2013

Grooming Behaviors

I've always been a kid magnet. Without trying, in many social situations, I end up with children climbing all over me. So other people being friendly or enjoying playing with children never seemed like an issue until I worked in a residential treatment center for behaviorally disturbed kids. In English: they'd all been physically and/or sexually abused and had behaviors that resulted from the abuse.

One of the 10-year olds started dressing like one of the 9-year olds. She started making gifts for the other girl. One of the staff said, "We need to make sure those two are never alone together; those are grooming behaviors."

"What do you mean? Isn't she just being nice?"

I got a Look, "Girl, lissen up. If someone wants to abuse a kid, or anyone, sexually, they usually set them up. They get them to want to spend time with them: gifts, fun events, fun yard, stuff like that. That girl is setting up her friend to try something."

So much for innocence. Mine.

At church, Brex and I often share a pew with an older couple. At first I thought they were irritated by his antics, but they slowly warmed up. One Sunday they had a friend with them. He and Brex made faces at each other and did other cute interactions. I assumed he was just good with kids.

The next Sunday, the older woman gave me a new toy truck. "Our friend Big T wanted to give this to your son. He really had fun playing with him the other week. He just loved your kid and wanted to make him happy." I said thank you, and Brex loved his new truck.

A gift after one interaction sent up a warning flag. I usually wait for another data point before concluding anything, but I knew I'd never leave my kid alone with Big T.

Another data point came the next Sunday. During worship the older woman signalled she had something for me. I nodded. I took Brex back for Sunday school and then came back and sat in the back. After the service, the older woman gave the card intended for me to the pastor's daughter who was working in Sunday School. When the older woman saw me and told me she'd made a mistake and gave it to the wrong person.

"It's ok. I'll get it. Don't worry about it.

When I got the the Sunday school room, the pastor's daughter looked stricken, "I'm SO sorry, she gave me this and I opened and read it cause I thought it was for me. Are you ok?"

I was confused by her concern. The card was from Big T. In it he wrote that he's sorry he hasn't been able to come by church, but he's a missionary and travels alot. He's been praying for us and wants me to know that everything will be ok (I often cry during worship. Usually cause I'm just so struck by something about who God is that feels so big or amazing). He gave me his phone number and told me to call any time. Apparently my facial expressions reflected the same emotions the pastor's daughter had experienced.


I quickly explained the situation. I laughed ruefully, "Since Jrex doesn't come to church, he must think I'm a single mom. I thought Brex was the target, but it looks like it's me!" Of course, the terrifying truth is that there are men who target women with children in order to get to the children. How sad that if I were single and feeling unlovely and unloved, and if I didn't know about grooming behaviors, I might be drawn to someone who seems like a very nice guy.

Now, I don't KNOW that's he's an abuser, but two data points confirms my first conclusion: he will never be alone with my son. It also means I need to write him a note to thank him for the gift and let him know that I'm happily married, fine with interacting with him when he visits church, but not looking for anything else.

What truly struck me was coming home from church and telling a friend about it. "You mean people like that go to church? Surely not!"

Did she miss the whole thing with the Catholic church? Never hear about youth group leaders abusing kids? Many pedophiles and sexual abusers are charismatic,  compelling, friendly people who are great with kids. As much as part of me is sad that I need to be on guard, I'm grateful that I know some of the warning signs and know when to proceed with caution.

Real life incidents that I look back on and see red flags:
  • The nice policeman with the pool who was great with neighborhood kids and would take groups of them to his house for the afternoon. My brother and sister went. He abused one of their friends, or at least did inappropriate touching.
  • The discomfort I felt when our pastor treated me like a beautiful woman when I was a shy, awkward young girl. I thought he was being kind and I just didn't know how to respond. I found out later he was inappropriate with adult women in church; I suspect I was picking up an 'off' vibe.
Given that it was news to me in my 20's and was just news to my friend in her 30's, consider this my public service announcement for the day.


Rachel said...

Wow, that's creepy. It's good that you had your radar up. He may be harmless, but I think you are right to be careful. There was a guy like that at my church when I was a kid. Nothing (beyond some inappropriate conversation) happened to me, but he later married a single mom and abused her daughter.

mary said...

Wow. I saw the Oprah episode on this (where she interviews pedophiles) but I never saw anyone describe it like this.. it's rather eye opening and makes me more alert to recognize such behavior around my kids. There definitely are some evil people out there.

Inkling said...

Wow. You totally explained what I've been confused about all these years. Thank you for that!!!!!

When I was single and in my 20's, this dad came to church with his kids for the first time and they sat by me. Since I was a Sunday school teacher, I offered to show them where to go to class as it was a big church. The next Sunday, he sought me out. I started to feel weird. The next Sunday he gave me this long letter about how his estranged wife and he were facing divorce, and he tried to follow me everywhere. I felt so violated by some of the things he said, and was afraid he would become some stalker, so I took the letter to my pastor. They actually intervened for me after reading it and realizing more than I did that we were dealing with someone dangerous. That was proven not too long after when he ended up taking his own life after trying to kidnap his children. It took a really, really long time to process that, and it still makes me feel gross inside when I think about it.

Until you explained it, I didn't truly understand why. (My pastor understood, but he was trying to protect me, so he and his staff were actually rather reserved about it and just said they would take care of him and of me.)