To effectively prevent and respond to sexual crimes, it is crucial to understand sexual offenders and their grooming techniques. We must identify the patterns and tactics used by perpetrators and equip ourselves with this knowledge to protect potential victims and hold offenders accountable. Alongside destigmatizing conversations about sexual violence and supporting survivors, education and awareness are indispensable in this endeavor. Many models in our industry call this a step program that takes time to master; I refer to this as a circle. A circle? Yes, based on years of working with Crimes Against Children and working sexual assault cases for Defense Teams, this technique is better described as a circle instead of steps. At each stage, the perpetrator may have to restart, or he may start at one stage and jump to the end.
While there are several steps in the grooming technique, some may not be used, and in some cases, all of these will be used. Unfortunately, when it comes to the grooming technique, the family does not recognize it until they meet with law enforcement and it is explained to them.
1. Identifying and Targeting the Victim. There are two types of sex offenders that I had to deal with when working on these cases. We have the Opportunistic and Target sex offenders. In the cases I have worked on throughout the years, most people commit these crimes because they are attracted to a particular sex, race, hair color, eye color, and age. The sex offender is a master manipulator and will study the victim to find vulnerable children with an absent parent, low self-esteem, or a child needing attention. Remember, this is an investment, so the time in this area is crucial for the sex offender, and they know they have to get it right.
2. Gaining Trust and Access. This step is equally important for the perpetrator to get right because it builds the foundation for the result they hope they will obtain in the end. In this step, the perpetrator will begin to offer the victim special attention, which they have identified as something the victim is lacking from others; they will be understanding and take a liking to the victim so that the victim will be more trusting. They will listen for hours to the child and will then begin to engage the victim and build a friendship and will build trust with the victim (I had a baseball coach that would allow the kids to spend the night, jump on the bed, eat candy, stay up all night, have extra practice). Remember, this is an investment stage as well. They will buy little gifts and, later on, other more significant gifts, which they will use as leverage. The perpetrator will remind the child, "You owe me."
3. Playing a role in the child's life. In this stage, the perpetrator will convince the child that they are the only one that truly understands them. They will become more involved in the child's life. They will pick the child up at school, take them to practice, and take more interest in the child so that the single mom would be less stressed. In one case I had, the perpetrator had convinced several single mothers to allow the child to spend the nights at their house so that the mother could go out and have fun.
4. Isolating the Child- This step is achieved because of the previous steps of playing a role in the child's life. They will continue picking the child up from events and take the child out of their everyday surroundings to separate the child from others and get the child alone so there is no witness to the abuse. Remember that I have worked on cases where other adults or children are in the house. Take, for example, a case where I worked where a perpetrator who used a wheelchair sexually abused fourteen children. To isolate the child, he would invite these young child victims to his apartment, where he was alone with them, to perform sex acts on them or for them to do sex acts on him. He would allow them to ride in his lap in the wheelchair so he could fondle them.
5. The perpetrator creates secrecy with the child. Depending on the child's age, the perpetrator will begin communicating with the child through text messages, late-night phone calls, or social media. In this stage, the perpetrator has to convince the child not to tell anyone, including their parents. The perpetrator has to persuade the child to invest in this. The perpetrator will use a tactic on the child by telling the child if they tell anyone about their friendship, they will get in trouble. There are also threats communicated to the child by telling them that if they tell, they will hurt the child and/or a family member. The perpetrator will also say, "They won't believe you" or "Well, if you say anything, then they will think you are gay (mainly with boys).
6. Initiating sexual contact. At this point, the child is in a dangerous position. The perpetrator has power over the child victim that he established earlier with emotional connections, trust, and secrecy. At this stage, we will see the physical contact with the child. Usually, this starts as an innocent touch on the knee/thigh area, massages, or a brush against each other in innocent passing. The perpetrator may receive some form of gratification from this. The perpetrator gauges the child's response, and if the child responds with a positive reaction or no reaction at all, the perpetrator will continue with further touching in different areas to gauge the child's response. If the child responds negatively, then the perpetrator will restart the process. Eventually, the perpetrator may introduce more sexualized touching to test the boundaries. By doing this, the perpetrator breaks down the child's innocence and desensitizes the child. The perpetrator will begin touching the child more and will achieve their goals. In a case I had, the perpetrator told me that he was trying to teach an eight-year-old child how to masturbate so he would demonstrate to the child, and in return, the child would practice on him. Another perpetrator explained that he used porn videos to warm the child up and show them this behavior is normal.
7. Controlling the Child. The critical element in this process is the relationship's secrecy to keep it going and make the child promise not to tell anyone. Often, the child will live a life of fear and not tell anyone about the abuse. If we return to step four of the process, the perpetrator must create this secrecy. The perpetrator will remind the child that if they don't keep a secret, people will think they liked it, will not believe them, or will no longer have fun together. For many children, what has happened to them is shameful, and they live a life of fear. Take, for example, a case I worked in where a baseball coach sexually abused multiple boys for decades, yet no child ever came forward. About ten years after the abuse stopped, one child, now in his adult years, came forward to me and outcried. The perpetrator identified several child victims during the investigation, and I contacted them. They were all adults and were shocked that the perpetrator had told me. When I interviewed the perpetrator, I asked him how this remained a secret for over thirty years. The only conclusion we came up with is that these boys don't want to be considered gay.
To conclude, I want there to be an understanding that while we can not protect our children at all times, communication, awareness, and teaching our children boundaries is a start. As parents, we can never prepare for horror; we must know that it is not your fault.
Haywood Sawyer has been recognized by the State of Texas, the District Attorney's Office, and law enforcement agencies for the investigations that he completed while working as a Crimes Against Children's Investigator. Haywood and his wife, Daniela, own On Call Investigative Solutions, LLC, out of Waco, TX, where they assist criminal defense teams around the State in understanding these cases by providing criminal defense work. You can reach Haywood at 254-640-1253 or email@example.com.