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From the late nineteenth century into the early twenty-first century, U.S. society has become tremendously concerned with the welfare of our nation’s children. Congress and states have passed specific laws recognizing that children hold a right to a healthy upbringing and should be provided with basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and safety from society’s downfalls. While considerable progress has been achieved in obtaining a framework of commitments protecting the rights and wellbeing of children, the general situation for children remains grave and unacceptable. Victims of injustice and poverty are always pleading to be heard, but none have had more difficulty breaking their silence then children who have fallen victims of sexual abuse.
Through my internship experience at the St. Barnabas Child Advocacy Center and the ideologies discussed within Cohen and Felson’s Routine Activities Theory there is an abundance of evidence to describe how the grooming process unfolds and what to look out for. Children are the most vulnerable victims in society if they won’t speak up for themselves someone has to for them.
The St. Barnabas Child Advocacy Center does just that, formerly known as the Child Protection Program the SBHCAC was established in October of 2000 to address the alarmingly high rates of child abuse in the Bronx. The SBHCAC ‘s mission is primarily focused on improving the quality of life for children ages 0 to 18 who fall victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, medical neglect, educational neglect or are exposed to domestic violence. The majority of cases are referred to the CAC from the Administration of Children Services and SBH Emergency Department, when there is a suspicion of child maltreatment. Other referrals are also commonly made from pediatrics, mental health centers, schools, foster care agencies, preventive service programs and law enforcement. Once a child has been referred they are provided with support services within a child friendly and culturally sensitive environment. These support services include medical exams and comprehensive psychosocial evaluations. These evaluations take place within a colorful room with spaceship murals on the wall, fuzzy green carpets, and an endless supply of toys with hopes that the child will feel at ease while discussing difficult topics. Depending on how the interview goes the child’s safety is assessed and preventative measures are put in place if necessary.
In 2009 the SBHCAC provided such evaluations, treatments, and follow up visits for 474 children and their families; 63% were under the age of twelve 70% of them being females and 30% males. Moreover of these children 52% were evaluated due to concerns of sexual abuse, 28% were seen for physical abuse, and 20% were exposed to domestic violence and/or neglect. The easiest of the three types of cases to indicate is the physical abuse due to the visible marks and bruises but also because children depending on their age view this excessive hitting as normal punishment allowing them to disclose with ease. Children of sexual abuse on the other hand are not as forthcoming.
Survivors of child sexual abuse often find it difficult to place the blame for their abuse where it really lies which is on the shoulders of the perpetrator. The perpetrator usually twists aspects of the abuse around so that the child is made to feel at fault or somehow complicit in the abuse. For example they might tell the child that the abuse is their fault, mask the abuse as “punishment”, entwining the abuse together with expressions of love and affection or perhaps by manipulating the child to initiate incidents of abuse. A child cannot truly understand the power-play and the control that the perpetrator has in these situations and will often take that self-blame and internalize it. As adults, this internalization of self-blame and responsibility for the abuse can lead to feelings of worthlessness, guilt, depression, self-hatred, inability to self-care and risky behaviors, among many others. Further justifying the importance of understanding the many ways in which an abuser targets their victim and “grooms” them for the sexual abuse. This learning process can act as the first step towards placing the blame where it belongs and releasing it from the shoulders of the victim. (pandoras project)
The grooming process can be defined as the desensitization that predators use on children to prepare and ploy them into accepting sexual abuse over a period of time. Once the predator has gained the child’s trust and confidence, they use everyday behaviors to assess whether or not the child is likely to tell on them. This process includes four procedures sexual attraction to child, justification of interest, grooming of adult community, and grooming of the child.
The sexual attraction to the child and justification are both internal settings within an abuser. The sexual attraction consists of the pre-existing condition in the molester that is present due to a possible array of reasons. While justification, a behavior sometimes referred to as neutralization, is the psychological effort the molester experiences to justify the behavior to himself. Here they break down any emotional barriers that would prevent them from acting upon the sexual attraction to children. It is very important to an abuser to tell to himself and perhaps to others that the child will experience no pain or harm. For instance he will tell himself that this is his way of showing the child love, “I do not want to hurt them.” Many molesters believe they are truly helping the child experience love. Subsequently, there is an importance to deny that the child is a victim, instead the view it to be perceived as the child actively wants to engage in sexual activity. In fact molesters vigorously argue against any societal view that child abuse is wrong which is demonstrated by the creation of NAMBLA the North American Man Boy Love Association that promotes child-adult relationships.
Next they focus their grooming techniques on the adults closest to the child by ingratiating themselves into the adult community surrounding the child whether it is within the immediate family, extended family, church community or an athletic organization. This is primarily done in an attempt to avoid any obstruction that would prevent access to the child. This includes exhibiting behaviors such as overt friendliness or doing constant favors without being asked. The most suitable family targets are impaired families with alcoholism, substance abuse, or single mother households who can use the help or could care less about their child’s wellbeing. According to Anna C. Salter an expert in the field of child sexual maltreatment, many sexual molesters describe adult grooming as integral component of their sexual activity with children and put much of the blame on the parents for having their child targeted. To them the parents are key ingredients in the decision to exploit a child. One offender stated “”Parents are partly to blame if they don’t tell their children about sexual matters-I used it to my advantage by teaching the child myself ” while another stated “Parents shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about things like this-it’s harder to abuse or trick a child who knows what you’re up to.”( CITE)
Finally the most important technique for the child molester is the grooming of his target, the child. First they look for a child with specific characteristics that are also classified as weaknesses. These weaknesses include needy, quiet, eager to please, compliant, overtly trusting, attention seeking, low self-esteem children who may also be friendless or bullied, simply because they are easy targets. But more than just personality characteristics disabled children ranging from speech issues, autism, to physical constrictions wear a bull’s-eye on their back. This is due to the fact that most of disable children are isolated from the community, dependent on adults for care, and display overall powerlessness.
Once a child has been chosen the next step is desensitizing the child to the touch of the molester through many types of normally innocent activities. These types of activities include tickling games, spinning children in the air, roughhousing, wrestling, piggy back rides, having children sit on their lap, snuggling, physical-picking up or carrying child. This as an opportunity to evaluate the child’s reaction to touch in a slow and attentive manner testing whether the child will tell or will keep a secret. This is a crucial stage for an abuser for it judges whether or not they can continue in the grooming process. This may seem particularly time consuming and only capable by the most competent offenders but the fact is this patience is what allows abuse to go on undetected for so long.
During my time at the St. Barnabas Child Advocacy Center I saw a total of 101 children in a time period of 4 months 55% of these children were seen due to concerns of both kinds of sexual abuse; touching and non-touching. Touching includes fondling of child’s genitals, making a child touch an adult’s sexual organs, and penetration of a child’s vagina or anus no matter how slight with penis, fingers, or any other object that doesn’t have a valid medical purpose. Non-touching includes actions that many people forget to be criminal such a engaging in indecent exposure, exposing child to pornographic material, deliberately exposing a child to live sexual intercourse and finally the act of masturbation in front of a child. Although this may be hard to imagine it’s unfortunate to say that most of the children I have seen have experienced one or more forms of this abuse. But at the same time some of these children a small handful have escaped the harshness of long term abuse by revealing a perpetrators motive at the early stages of an abusers grooming process.
The first name to come to mind is Krystal Carino, a 6 year old girl who was referred to the CAC in mid November. Krystal a very sweet and beautiful first grader came to the office accompanied by her mother and father due to concerns of sexual abuse. The mother explained that while washing Krystal in the bath after a day at her aunts (mother’s sister) she noticed a mark on her chest. This was exceedingly concerning to the mother because Krystal was continually trying to conceal it. Upon the request of the mother the father came in to look at the mark and after questioning the child, she disclosed that her uncle had “kissed” her there. She confirmed the same story while being interviewed by my supervisor and added even more detailed information only solidifying her allegations. The picture of the mark looked like a hickey and when asked what it felt like when he kissed her, she explained “it was weird like he was sucking.” She also stated it had happened while her aunt and cousin went to the laundry mat and that he told her if anyone asked what it was; she was to tell them, her little cousin hit her there. This case is a perfect example of the grooming process. From the start her parents had been groomed. The uncle has been in the family for 12 years presenting himself as a supporting husband and exceptional father. The parents had no reason not to trust him. With Krystal’s parents already groomed his next step was to assess the cooperation of the child. By sending her home with a mark on her chest he was testing to see whether or not she would provide her parents with the story he had made up for her. To this day we will never know if Krystal would have ever told her parents she was sexually assaulted. If her mother hadn’t cared enough to ask about the mark Krystal may have been continually victimized. Luckily for Krystal she has parents who assist her with bath time and really take an interest in her wellbeing. Unfortunately this is not the case for every child in the Bronx; most children live in homes where they are not the first priority. They live in a place stricken by poverty, alcohol, and drug abuse. Consequently children living in such poor conditions suffer, and for those who are experiencing sexual abuse endure hardships to a much greater severity.
Raheem Elliot an intelligent 4 year old boy was brought in early December due to a sexual abuse disclosure he made to his foster mother. Raheem comes from a very contaminated life full of neglect, abuse, drugs and alcohol. His mother Ms. Taylor has 12 children with three different men, ranging in age from 1 ½ to age 16. During her pregnancies with most of these children the mother tested positive for cocaine and alcohol and as a result, many of her children are significantly developmentally delayed. Although these children have been at risk even before they were born, the Administration of Children Services only first got involved with the family 2 years ago. At this time the younger boys were displaying sexualized behavior with their siblings at home and at school with their classmates, which led to an investigation. This investigation explained the reason for these behaviors was directly caused by their constant exposure to pornography and live sexual activity. Immediately as a result, all 12 children were removed from the mother’s care and put into a number of foster homes to ensure their safety. It was during this point in time we came to realize that even more sexual abuse was taking place outside the home.
According to Raheem’s newly assigned foster mother, Gloria, Raheem has been taking stuffed animals and continually digitally penetrating them in their anus regions. When Gloria questioned Raheem asking “Why are you doing that” instead of answering I saw my brother do it as would be expected in the Elliot home; Raheem responded “Well I do it to the animals because Goody does it me.” This was very alarming because Goody is an adult neighbor who lives across the street and according to mom “he (Goody) has grown close with Raheem and his brother Marcus, they spend a lot of time together, he would never do that.” Instantly my supervisor attempted to interview Raheem but after just being placed in a new foster home and being in another new place my supervisor decided to let him play around the office, get familiar, and make a new appointment. Two weeks later Raheem and his foster mom were back to try this interview one more time, but Raheem would not sit still. All he would say about Goody was “he is a very bad man that lives behind the door across from his door.” Fortunately for the purpose of getting this man arrested, the foster mother revealed new information Raheem had confided in her. According to Gloria, Raheem constantly has nightmares and when she comes in to check on him each time he confesses different pieces of information. The 4 year old stated that Goody digitally penetrates them and touches his penis very fast and “pees” on their faces. Also when they do not do what he wants he cuts them with knifes and burns them with cigarettes which was beyond evident with the number of scars he had all over his body. In fact this behavior is so far embedded in Raheem’s mind that when Gloria tries to pay the clerk at the grocery store Raheem will ask, “Why are you paying?” Because on countless occasions Goody brings the boys to the store wearing back packs so he can stuff them with items and have them steal it. For Goody this family was targeted due to its lack of structure, impaired supervision, and the overall chaotic nature of the home. The single mother was easily groomed because she cares little about her children and a free babysitter is exactly what she is looking for. The child was also easily groomed because of the constant fear of being stabbed or burned, and the idea that even if I tell mom she won’t believe me discourages any disclosures. Raheem was abused for a year, and in 4 weeks with a foster mother who cared and nurtured him he finally broke his silence.
The common denominator of both of these cases leading to a disclosure was the relationship between the legal guardian and the child. For Krystal her mother and father refused to ignore their child’s unusual behavior over a freshly made mark; and for Raheem coming from such a overcrowded home without any parental supervision, having a “mom” one on one to listen to him provided him an opportunity to tell someone of his abuse. Although it is very important for parents to understand the way in which a predator targets and grooms a child. It is also an utmost priority for guardians to provide children with a strong and open relationship with their children. One that is full of communication. Children need someone to talk to and as a parent it should be a major concern to know what’s going on in your child’s life. For children 85% of child victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being a family member. This makes it so hard from them to tell.
Unfortunately in reality some children of the Bronx will never have relationships like this with their parents, so who can they tell? After working here for 4 months I put a lot of responsibilities on the board of education. For many children this is their home away from home. In my opinion teachers, school psychologist, guidance counselors etc. should be thoroughly trained in how to look out for abuse. In addition even though this is a sensitive topic for everyone I believe teachers should have the ability to teach children the appropriate names of their private parts, educate children about the difference between good touches and bad touches, and finally what constitutes a good secret and bad secret. In the past and up until now schools are constantly focused on “stranger danger”, but for almost all children of sexual abuse strangers are the least of their worries.
The majority of children never report the abuse, and this is often because they are afraid of their parent’s reactions, they are afraid they will get in trouble, or simply because they just don’t know how to tell. The child who allows these fears to keep them from telling will end up experiencing severe emotional and physical consequences, both in childhood and later on. Children from a very young age can be taught skills that lower there vulnerability
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