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The telling signs someone in your child's life is a predator.

“I wish I could have known.”

It’s the line that all parents say when they find out their child was the victim of abuse. So often, it’s a person close to them, or at the very least, known to them – and still, they had no idea.

Abusers who prey on children often taken weeks, months, even years to lure them into a sense of security with their company. This is called ‘grooming’. And this week, a paper has been released by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that is out to teach us all the warning signs.

‘Grooming’ is defined by the paper as “The use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques with a vulnerable subject … in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour.” But detecting these techniques and behaviours can be almost impossible, as they are generally extremely covert and deceptive. This, in itself, is one of the greatest issues when it comes to child abuse.

So, the Royal Commission is the first formalised study into the grooming process, providing parents, teachers, family, or anyone else who works with children ways to detect those who could pose a threat to the child’s safety.

Here are some of the most important findings.

It’s not just the child being groomed – it’s you, too.

In order to gain access to a child, an abuser must first manipulate the child’s caregivers to appear trustworthy. This may not just be in the lead up to the abuse, but also following the incident, in a bid to cover up what has happened.

The paper notes that just because your colleague, friend, or partner doesn’t seem like the type of person to abuse children, it doesn’t mean they won’t. In fact, they will often go to great lengths to ‘groom’ their peers as well to hide their attraction to children.

“The motivation behind the behaviour – to perpetrate or conceal child sexual abuse,” says the report, “was not outwardly visible and it was therefore difficult to recognise the behaviour as grooming.”

Listen: “This idea is not coming from a bad place. It’s coming from a scared place.” says Mia Freedman.

Their intentions will rarely be clear.

Think you would be able to pick a child abuser? Probably not. Recognising a perpetrator is extremely difficult because often it will be unseen by the child’s carers.

“Grooming techniques aimed at building trust are purposefully undertaken by the perpetrator so that any interaction between the perpetrator and child is seen as legitimate activity, distinguishable only by the perpetrator’s motivation to perpetrate or conceal child sexual abuse.”

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So, grooming can often occur in ‘normal’ environments, even public spaces in which you are present – it’s not all behind closed doors.

Grooming often involves gifts or ‘special events’.

It’s no secret that the way to a child’s favour is to gift them a new toy or invite them along to a fun or special activity. This differs from normal treats in that it would exceed “what would be expected or normal for the caregiving role”.

Paedophiles often pursue careers in which their behaviour with children is deemed normal or safe. Once they position themselves as someone trustworthy to the carers, gift-giving or spoiling can be passed off as that person simply favouring the child above others, which can even be appreciated or encouraged.

man raped his granddaughter
Parents will rarely find it easy to tell if their child is being groomed. (Image via iStock.)

This is called ‘institutional grooming’, where the abuser uses "...features unique to the organisational setting to sexually abuse a child". These features include opportunity, anonymity, secrecy, trust and power.

The grooming process comes in three stages.

Over the course of manipulating their victim and the people around them, the abused will go through three stages of action.

1. Gaining access to a victim
2. Initiating and maintaining abuse
3. Concealing abuse

The process will often intensify over time, too. So while it may begin with something as innocuous as a gift, it will eventually come to encompass exposure to alcohol, desensitisation to sexual acts, drug use, explicit language, and isolation.

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The aim is to make the child feel special.

“Acts of grooming are often undertaken with the aim of making the prospective victim feel ‘special’ or ‘privileged’,” writes the report.

“At the same time, the child knows he or she is engaging in activities that contravene rules, and can therefore be made complicit in maintaining secrecy. This complicity can also serve to further isolate the child from others.”

Keeping the lines of communication open will work to prevent secrecy about where your child is or is going will help to break down this forced isolation.

(Image via iStock.)

There are many different types of abusers.

But the report breaks them down into three main categories: predatory, opportunistic, or situational perpetrators.

Predatory perpetrators are more likely to have a diagnosis of paedophilia and are "persistently and exclusively sexually attracted to children".

Opportunistic perpetrators do not prefer children to adults, but according to the Commission, use children for their own sexual interests.

Situational perpetrators do not have a preference for children, but may abuse a child due to poor coping skills, or the absence of an adult relationship.

Some children are considered more at risk than others.

The report pinpoints the following groups to be more at risk of sexual grooming than other children:

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- Children who are socially isolated
- Children who have mental health or behavioural difficulties
- Children who have low self-esteem
- Children have one parent who is continually absent
- Children have been a victim of bullying
- Children who live in a situation of domestic violence
- Children who identify as non-heterosexual or transgender
- Children who have a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Children with disability.

Parents have to be wary and look for signs to know if they have cause for concern. (Image via iStock.)

It's important to fight the stereotypes.

As the report notes, society has some major misconceptions when it comes to understanding what abuse, and abusers look like.

Grooming indicates a non-attentive parent, or a willing child - both of which are not true. Institutions such as schools are considered ‘safe’ from abusers, also not true. Paedophiles might not always be old, either - those in their teens can also be abusers.

The report closes with the recommendation that institutions that care for children should step up their screening process when hiring, as well as clarifying stringent guidelines for what is and is not appropriate for staff behaviour.

For parents or carers reading, know that the best thing you can do is keep open and honest conversation with your children. Have plans in place for them to talk to you, or someone else they trust, if they feel something is not right.

You can read the full Royal Commission report here.