It sounds terrifying but knowing signs of child maltreatment or exploitation is important. Across Indiana’s Child Advocacy Centers, we see the trends in how children in Indiana and across the US are becoming victims of abuse, neglect, and other maltreatment.
Recognize that most children who suffer physical or sexual abuse — about 95% — do so at the hands of someone they know. It’s the neighbor, teacher, coach, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and grandparents that are abusing children.
In one case here in Indiana a child was abused after a father repeatedly struck his 8-year-old son “because he was mad”. In another, a child was left with a grandmother who physically abused, chained, and starved an adolescent girl.
High-profile cases like Jared Fogle hold the nation’s attention. But the cases of drug-addled parents and abusive families are the greater threat. Alcohol increasingly drives physical abuse. Opioid drug abuse drives neglect. The signs of this are common and better-known. Anger, the presence of drugs or alcohol, and violent mood swings are all signs.
6 signs of grooming
In the case of sexual assault, the signs are more nuanced. There are six vital signs that a child is being “groomed” for sexual exploitation:
- An adult pretending to be someone they’re not, which is typical and easy in online chats and games
- An adult offering advice or sympathetic understanding to problems
- Gift giving
- Giving the child considerable attention
- Using their professional position or reputation – such as a teacher, parent, coach, etc.
- Taking kids on trips or vacations
Child Advocacy Centers see cases that run the gamut in the way groomers prey on children. Children cannot discern the ulterior motives behind the predators. There are six general stages of grooming you can read about here. And predators will use any means available to make a child believe they have no choice but to follow along.
How parents can react to grooming and exploitation
As a parent, there are things you can do to help protect your children.
First, talk to your children. Tell them if anyone — even family members — approaches them awkwardly, touches them, hugs a little too long, makes them feel uncomfortable to talk to you. Unless there’s imminent danger, they come go to you before a teacher, principal, or another adult.
Watch for the same “weaknesses” as predators. Make sure your child’s online usernames aren’t flirtatious or have a sexual meaning.
Watch for public comments your child makes that might show low self-esteem. This can make them vulnerable to getting close to “sympathetic” predators.
Remember that predators don’t need to meet face-to-face anymore. They can exploit children through sexting, online webcams, and sex chats.
Video game systems are chat networks, too. Our friends at the Indiana State Police have been investigating Xbox and PS4 networks while undercover for years.
If you’re afraid your child may be susceptible or hiding something, approach them carefully. Children frequently don’t speak out because they feel guilty or ashamed. They may be unaware they’re being abused. Often they may think they’re in a relationship with a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. And in almost every instance the predator has told them to “keep this a secret”. The predator knows precisely what they’re doing.
How to start a conversation (this is helpful for bullying, too)
Once you do approach your child, start the discussion calmly and relevantly. For example, you might discuss a situation after it’s presented on TV and ask what they would do. Or you might say, “This happened to someone we know” and explain what happened.
You should expect the conversation to take some time, possibly weeks. Your child may not be ready to talk. Listen as much as you talk, and make sure you’re someplace comfortable, like in the living room or kitchen.
If your child explains something, don’t interrupt them. Don’t lead them, and most importantly don’t criticize them. Ultimately, you may determine abuse has most likely happened. In which case, call your local police immediately. In Indiana the anonymous child abuse hotlines exists at 1-800-800-5556.
Remember, you want your child to know and recognize that you are the one to be trusted. Establish, respect, and protect that trust at a young age. It will serve your children well into their teens and young adulthood.