Sexual abuse - The grooming of young children

Elaine Hook
Monday, November 17, 2014

With children at risk of sexual abuse from a very young age, it is vital that practitioners are aware of the signs. Elaine Hook offers some guidance.

Child grooming is sexual abuse undertaken by establishing an emotional attachment with a child. That abusers will work to gain the trust of a child and make them feel special is well known.

What is less well known is that children are at risk from a very young age.

The term 'grooming' is most often linked to predatory strangers working online, or institutional grooming (such as the Rochdale scandal where gangs of men groomed and raped and tortured well over 1,000 children). When it comes to very young children, intra-familial grooming is the most common type.

As most children (estimates range from between 80 and 98 per cent) are abused by someone they know, grooming will often play a part. There are no specific statistics on intra-familial grooming, but about 1,000 children under five are victims of all forms of sexual abuse each year, according to the NSPCC.

Very young children are easy prey for an abuser. They cannot verbalise what is happening to them, and are easily enticed to keep a secret. In The Seduction of Children, psychologist Christiane Sanderson explains that 'young children look to adults to make sense of the world and if they are told sexual activity between children and adults is normal they will believe this and normalise (it). In addition, very young children are not able to normalise their experiences, reducing the risk of disclosure.'

It is also worth stating the obvious, as the Rochdale case has shown that prejudicial attitudes from adults are still present in child abuse cases: children are never at fault.

Victims of child sex abuse will be left traumatised and the results are often utterly catastrophic. Various studies have linked child sex abuse with depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol dependency, eating disorders, and prostitution later in life.

Child sexual abuse happens in all walks of life, across the whole country and in all races and cultures. It is carried out by both men and women, though the majority of sexual abusers are male. In 5 to 10 per cent of cases, the abuser is female.

How young children are groomed

Child grooming involves high levels of psychological manipulation. Perpetrators use coercion, intimidation and enticement. In familial grooming, keeping 'the secret' can be used as a game and a very young child will see 'telling' the secret as a breach or naughty behaviour. However, according to the North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children Board, 'often their greatest fear is that they won't be believed.'

The rewards used to groom very young children are often straightforward. Sweets, money, toys, a favourite book or an outing will be offered. Conversely, children are blackmailed into believing something bad will happen to them or their family if they do not co-operate. The groomer may show the child pornographic videos and images and talk about sex to normalise their actions and make it easier for the child to trust.

Mary's Story

Mary was three when she began being sexually abused by her grandfather for two years. She was rewarded for keeping the secret with her favourite toothpaste, sweets and outings.

Mary's behaviour did not change within the nursery for many months, as this was her grandfather, whom she loved and trusted. But, over time, Mary became quiet, introverted and would never speak about her home life. Eventually her seven-year-old sister told the school nurse what was happening, and at five years old Mary was questioned in a play therapy session and disclosed also. Both children were offered appropriate support, and the grandfather was sent to prison.

The wider family

Perpetrators will often prepare the ground for the grooming to take place. According to Barnardo's, 'abusers are very clever in the way they manipulate and take advantage of the young people they abuse'. In father-daughter abuse, the father will find ways to make the child feel 'special' and create opportunities to be alone with the child.

A very young child's extended family will also be groomed into believing that inappropriate behaviours are normal, and will thus go unnoticed or be accepted. The 'groomer' is often fun, charming and liked by family and friends.

Jane's Story

Two-year-old Jane had become quiet and introverted and had begun to nap in the foetal position. When nursery staff changed her nappy, they found several pubic hairs inside.

Staff discussed Jane's changes in behaviour with her mother, who told them that Jane had begun spending the weekends with her father.

It materialised that Jane slept in her father's bed and he had sexually abused her.

Social services was informed and the child was taken into care.

Indicators of grooming in young children

- Withdrawn, introverted and/or secretive

- Scared, nervous

- Aggressive

- Sudden and significant behaviour changes

- Anxious/depressed

- Nightmares and sleep difficulties/napping in the foetal position

- Sore genitalia and repeated infections

- Bed wetting

- Missing nursery

- Changes to eating habits

- Unexplained marks

The legal framework

There is no legal requirement to report any form of suspected abuse. However, there is a clear expectation set out in law. The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage states that: 'Providers must be alert to any issues for concern in the child's life at home or elsewhere.' This means we should be considering the whole family dynamic, including sibling behaviour, which may indicate all is not well at home.

In addition, Working Together to Safeguard Children, statutory guidance on inter-agency working, states, 'Everyone who works with children - including teachers, GPs, nurses, midwives, health visitors, early years professionals, youth workers, police, accident and emergency staff, paediatricians, voluntary and community workers and social workers - has a responsibility for keeping them safe.'

Training on safeguarding and child protection should be carried out from a wide perspective that includes grooming.

The law on grooming itself takes into account the intent of the abuser: sections 14 and 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 make it an offence to arrange for yourself or anyone else to meet a child with the intent of sexually abusing the child - the meeting itself is a criminal offence.

Elaine Hook is an educational consultant and founder of charity Inspire You Me & Us. She is also adviser to the Independent Panel Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Useful contacts

- Childline, 0800 1111

- NSPCC helpline, 0808 800 5000

- Barnardos Sexual Exploitation Centre Outreach Service, 01642 819743

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