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How to Protect Your Child

As a survivor of childhood sexual assault and as an attorney who has fought for the rights of victims for the past 20 years, I didn’t know I could still be rattled. The Tale (HBO Films starring Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Common & Elizabeth Debicki) rattled me. I finally understood from this film, how my predators groomed me.

What makes this movie so stunning is the carefully paced, remarkable exploration of child sexual abuse, consent and the ways people groom children for sexual assault. It’s the motherlode of all #MeToo’s. Laura Dern is flawless as the victim and Ellen Burstyn as her mother. Ellen Burstyn played my therapist in the television movie made about my life and sexual abuse, Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story, and still, this film moved me to tears and nausea at the same time.

It’s a powerful wake up call to parents across the country who must ask themselves how predators remained unreported and undetected and what we can do to protect our kids. The majority of children who’ve been victimized never tell us. And tragically, the ones who do are not heard or believed. So it’s up to us to spot the warning signs and listen. The best way to do that is to understand how predators groom our children for sexual assault. Remember, these grooming predators are pros at appearing to the outside world as warm, caring, loving, endearing and respectful. They are sports coaches, religious leaders, Cub Scout leaders, soccer coaches, tutors, fathers of play dates, uncles, family friends, neighbors, grandfathers, stepfathers, camp leaders, and anyone who comes into regular contact with our children. And they are everywhere our kids are. They have to be.

Anywhere there are children there are grooming predators!

So come on mamma lionesses, let’s get our claws out and protect our cubs. Information is power.

Grooming is the process by which a predator draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. The shrouding of the relationship is an essential feature of grooming. As part of the process, the predator works to separate the child from peers, parents and family, typically by engendering in the child a sense that they are special and giving a kind of love to the child that they need and crave.

I have cross-examined pedophiles on the witness stand, and they will smile sweetly at me, giving their best bedtime “cookies and milk” story, and swear to my face that the relationship they had with the child is one of pure “equal love.” They testify that they love your child more than you do and they don’t see anything wrong with a forty something male having a sexual relationship with an eleven-year-old child.

So to even the mine field and give our children and you a fighting chance…

Here are the 10 Top ways predators groom our children for a sexual assault.

Building Trust –“We are family, this is our little secret, don’t tell anyone because they would try to break us up and take me away from you.”
Predators are nothing if not masterful at showing your child love, attention, and adoration. The groomer makes the child feel good about themself. Grooming predators offer special trips, coaching, church events, campouts, babysitting, tutoring and special events. They shower the child with how special that child is followed with treats, attention and gifts. They form a bond that says to the child, “I see in you something that no one else sees, not your parents, not your teachers.” The child feels they are their best self with the predator. Your child feels the way an object of love feels – euphoric.

Nothing is asked of the child at this stage other than to be their perfect, adored, self.

Predators move closer and closer to your child, become more and more involved with your child. Your child responds to the adoration with trust. Predators know that to get what they want, they have to build your child’s trust. And they are brilliant at it.

Building Parents/Caregivers Trust – “Here’s a gift I bought for you and Tony, just a little something from me” “My boss couldn’t pick Morgan up today, so I guess I’m the stand- in chauffeur” said with charming wink while he hustles your child out the door and into his car for their special time together.
The predator gains your trust by watching and gathering information about your child, getting to know his or her needs and how to fill them. They show an unusual interest in your child. They mix in flawlessly with responsible caretakers because they generate warm and measured attention. They are charming, likeable, helpful and earnest. They are pleasant to be around. If your inner gut is working, listen to it! Predators are a little too good to be true. Sophisticated predators are patient, often suave and subtle. They are disciplined for how far to push and poke, without revealing themselves. Think of the grooming predator on the prowl like a secret agent—focused, calibrated, ready to strike when the time is right.

And remember, while they are grooming your child for sexual assault they are also grooming you… The parents, family, community to trust them and allow them unfettered access to your children and loved ones.

Forming a Deep and Special Bond – “Our bond is too pure, our love too deep for society to understand.”
Predators create a world where it’s just them and your child. A perfect, loved, cherished world of ice cream and cookies, and movies and no rules or bedtimes or chores. A magical world. They notice if your child is cold, and get a blanket, if your child is hungry, and provide their favorite food, forbidden snack, or treat. They use words like “we” “our little secret” “together”, “just us”. The child feels visible, cherished, respected and the object of devotion. Meanwhile the predator is working to undermine your relationship and your family’s relationship with your child. He supports the child’s complaints about his family, tells your child it doesn’t have to be like that, what is real is “our relationship, our world.” “I’m always here for you.” I understand you.” “You’re my little princess/prince.”

Filling a Need- Giving The Child a Kind of Love that the Child Needs –“You paint beautifully, a real artist, you are perfect just the way you are, you’re mature for your age.”
Life as a child can be challenging. Bullying at school, feeling like an outsider at home or school, feeling ignored, unloved, introverted, self conscious, awkward, ordinary, invisible, unattractive and not special in any way. Life at home may be difficult too. Parents going through marital woes, family conflicts, strife between siblings and stepchildren, too few resources and too much need.

The predator begins to fill the child’s needs. He assumes more importance in the child’s life and may become idealized by the victim and the parents. At first, the perpetrator is seen kindly and even with relief. A rescuer.

They spend one-on-one time with your child teaching her a sport, skill, talent that your child craves.

The Dance of Seduction – “I’m taking you camping this weekend to teach you all the stuff for those Boy Scout merit badges you’ve been talking about. Your dad’s just been too busy.”
Ask yourself this: What adult wants to spend excessive time and energy with a child that is not their own? No child is that special or interesting to normal adults. But a grooming predator likes nothing better than to spend time with your child. He’s able to provide your child with the special things you have not been able to provide.

It’s part of the predators’ dance of seduction. They lure the child into an entangled web that the children cannot extricate themselves from. The movie, The Tale, depicts this dance perfectly with the following dialogue…

Predator: “I picked out a book of poetry I wanted to show you. I’ve wanted to show you since the first time I read your writing because it reminded me of you. You’ll see.”

“Here we go. Start there and just read out loud.”

“You read beautifully.”

“I just knew you would like it.”

“Honey, are you cold. Your hands are trembling. Are you feeling ok? Let me call Mrs. G, maybe you are sick?”

Victim: “No no I’m fine. I don’t want to go home.”

Predator: “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get you a blanket.”

“Now move back (he chuckles). You’ll feel a lot warmer in a second.”

“How’s that?”

“Ok now scoot over, I’m cold now”.

He moves closer and closer to the child little by little. He crosses the physical boundary between them with words and small actions that go unnoticed until he’s too physically close for the child to back out of it.

He then says:

“You are so special. Did you know that? You’re so deep. I want to save you from all those stupid young boys out there. I think you are perfect. Would you do something for me? Would you “let me see” will you just show me what you look like without your shirt?”

“Do you want to take your shirt off”?

Child: “Hmmm.

Child: “Okay.”

The predator gets the child’s participation in the abuse creating a lifetime of shame, blame, secrecy and damage to the child.

Persistence-Targeting the Right Child – “We were all kids that no one would have noticed. But he saw our talent and pushed up to be winners.”
All predators survive by knowing how to cull the weakest out of the herd and devour them. The youngest, the smallest, the frightened one or the outsider, the one no one will stick up for or suspect. Predators/pedophiles/perpetrators are pros at picking just the right child. He targets his victim by sizing up the child’s vulnerability—emotional neediness, isolation, introversion and lower self-confidence.

He picks the child shuffling his feet with his head down, the skinny kid in the hoodie, the shy girl, the people pleaser, the ones who look like they need a friend, the kid whose parents are never around, the kid who other kids pick on, or worse, the kid that other kids ignore — the one likely to acquiesce, to keep the secret who needs a void filled. Again, think about this like a secret agent. Secret agents know which target to go after. Predators know which children are easy prey.

Manipulating the Victim – “I don’t think we should tell your parents about us or our relationship. We should wait. I don’t think they are quite ready.”
Grooming predators use words like “we” “family” “together” “best friends” “your family doesn’t appreciate you. They don’t understand you.”

Predators undermine the victim’s family and the relationship the victim has with trusted adults. If the child complains about their family, the predator will say, “Your parents are good people, they just don’t understand someone as perfect as you.” “Only we understand each other.” “We are just like each other, you and I.” “We form the ideal pair. We’re best friends aren’t we?”

Maintaining a Cult Like Control – “We will form our own family based on complete honesty and love. Hiding nothing, revealing everything to each other, just the truth.”
Predators rewire the child’s brain just like cults do. As part of cult tactics, members are made to feel special. They are part of an elite group that is going to, for example, win an athletic event or perform a feat of wonder. They have a strong sense of mission or purpose which binds them together and keeps them working hard and giving of themselves.

As part of the grooming process, predators weave a tight web that the victim cannot escape from. Once the sexual abuse is occurring, predators commonly use secrecy and blame, folding the victim into the conspiracy to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence—particularly because the sexual activity may cause the child to withdraw from the relationship. Children do not want the sexual part of the relationship but they don’t want to lose the rest of the relationship.

Children in these entangled relationships—and at this point they are a tangled mess—face threats to end the relationship and to end the emotional and material needs they get from the relationship, whether it be the hover boards the child gets to ride, the coaching one receives, special outings or other gifts. The child may feel that the loss of the relationship and the consequences of exposing it will humiliate and render them even more unwanted and unlovable. The child is giving up “pure love” and their new family. They don’t know how to get out. They don’t know how to make it stop. They are completely trapped.

9. Isolating the Child –“We are family, just us.” Your parents don’t understand you and love you the way I do.”
This “ideal” relationship is often reinforced when the predator cultivates a sense in the child that he is loved or appreciated in a way that others, not even parents, provide. Parents may unwittingly feed into this through their own appreciation for the unique relationship. The family gets entangled into the predator’s web too.

The predator uses the growing exclusive relationship with the child to create situations in which they are alone together. This isolation further reinforces a deep connection. The “we” against “them” dynamic and special trips, all enable this isolation.

Sexualizing the Relationship –“I’ve been preparing for this moment. I don’t think we should tell anyone about us yet because they may try to take us away from each other. They are not quite ready. Can you keep our important relationship a secret?”
Predators, because they have done this multiple times with multiple victims know when there is a sufficient emotional dependence and trust with the child to begin sexualizing the relationship.

“Take off your pants for me, let me see you naked.” “You’re so beautiful, you are perfect.” Making the child participate in the sexualizing of the relationship guarantees secrecy and the child’s silence. Some predators desensitize the child or normalize the sexualizing of the relationship by taking pictures of the child in various stages of undress, talking them through it, creating situations where both the predator and the child are naked (like showering together, swimming). At that point, the adult exploits a child’s natural curiosity, using feelings of stimulation to advance the sexuality of the relationship. The guilt for victims is that when someone touches parts of their body meant to feel good, it does feel good, causing conflicting emotions of shame and pleasure.

When teaching a child, the grooming predator has the opportunity to shape the child’s sexual preferences turning the child into the predator’s perfect lover. Everything moving forward at this stage is about the predator and getting what he’s always wanted. He will keep the child in this sexualized place for as long as he can.

The child comes to see themself as a more sexual being and to define the relationship with the grooming predator in more sexual and private terms. “I said yes because I wanted to prove that I was mature. He says I was beautiful just the way I am.”

The grooming predator normalizes dangerous situations so that the child is lured into a feeling of normalcy in a situation that is anything but “normal.”

“Why don’t we have a sleepover tonight in my cabin in Big Bear?” That way we get more time to talk about this stuff. How’s that sound?”

It may look like the grooming predator is giving the child a choice. He’s not. But when the child doesn’t say no, the child feels responsible, guilty, a participant. The grooming predator uses the child against the child, entrapping them into a yes, and being casual about it. He doesn’t force the boy or girl into anything at first. “You can make up your own mind, can’t you?”

The child can’t say no to the person who has created the perfect world of heaven. The child goes against everything in them, doesn’t say anything. There is always a point when the child is uncomfortable because they can feel the line has been crossed and the girl or boy feels unsafe and scared. But the child is too trapped to say no at this point. Even when the sex is physically painful, they don’t break silence.

Stats: What many parents need to understand is that sexual abuse is quite common. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (for more information see: Roughly 90 percent of offenders are relatives of their victim, or acquaintances such as neighbors, family friends, teachers, and coaches. One in seven child sexual abuse victims are under the age of six. Grooming predators can appear to the outside world to be warm, caring, loving, and respectful, it is these very traits that allow them to continue their horrific acts.

“Being sexually abused at such an early age was the scar on my soul. But I feel like it ultimately made me into the person I am today. I understand the journey of life. I had to go through what I went through to be here. But now it’s time to take action to save the next generation of women and children from what we went the

Shari Karney is a survivor’s attorney. She represents victims of child sexual abuse by sexual predators such as a member of the clergy, a teacher, celebrity, sports coach, wealthy businessman or any other powerful person, Karney Law is here for you.

Shari Karney, Attorney at Law
Child Sexual Abuse Attorney
A Survivor’s Attorney