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Guardrails Against Grooming

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Tragically, grooming of children happens. The nonprofit sector is not free from these harmful tactics, aimed at eventually causing sexual harm. Nonprofit leaders thus need to proactively be on guard - developing and following robust child protection policies, screening and training childcare workers well, and supervising programs with consistency. Within such risk management measures, childcare leaders and workers can learn to identify the warning signs of grooming and implement appropriate child safety guardrails.

What is Grooming?

“Grooming” within this child safety context can be described as follows:

1. A series of nonviolent behaviors designed to overcome another person’s defenses by slowly desensitizing their natural reactions to abusive behaviors;

2. Manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught[1];

3. When someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit, and abuse them.[2]

In summary, grooming typically involves subtle, manipulative activities pushing boundaries in order to eventually abuse a victim sexually. Groomers engage in these behaviors not only with the ultimate target of abuse, but in relation to everyone around the target, including, in the case of children, the parents, childcare workers, gatekeepers, and leaders within organizations. Grooming works by mixing positive behaviors – like encouragement, gifts, and friendship – with elements of abuse like control, seeking information about a child’s vulnerabilities, and touch. Such abusive elements are added incrementally so as not to alarm the child, or others, and to slowly normalize inappropriate behaviors. Sexually oriented grooming ultimately seeks access and control, and it erases healthy boundaries.

Cause for Alarm?

Grooming for sexual abuse can be quite nefarious. Do nonprofits need to scale back opportunities for child mentorship or programs? By no means. Healthy mentor relationships between young and old deserve to be treasured, cultivated, and valued. But leaders should be aware of insidious grooming patterns and take proactive measures to protect children participating in their ministries and programs.[3]

Follow the Rules!

Of key importance, adherence to a “zero-tolerance” policy may prove critical for every childcare worker’s compliance with child protection rules – no exceptions, no leniency. Why so strict? Such approach may not only protect children at risk, but also suspected groomers as well as nonprofit organizations and their leaders. Here’s why.

Consider a childcare male worker who tickles a four-year-old girl in violation of organizational rules, and he is caught doing so but is not disciplined. Grooming? Maybe, maybe not. Now consider the same childcare worker who rubs the child’s back, to help her get to sleep during naptime, again in violation of organizational rules. Grooming? Again - maybe, maybe not. But then the girl claims later that the same childcare worker touched her “down here” and it “hurt.” What to do? Perhaps the nonprofit organization needs to remove the child, notify the authorities, let the parents know, and take other caring measures. All appropriate measures, though so unfortunate and incredibly sad.

What about the alleged perpetrator? Should he be immediately fired for allegedly harming the girl, even if it is not necessarily clear what happened? Further, will he be labeled as a child molester, or perhaps a predator? Reported to the criminal authorities, especially when mandated? If so, then the nonprofit leaders may need to deal with a potential defamation claim by the childcare worker (for harming his reputation) and a plethora of other concerns such as possible adverse media attention, consternation across the organization, and worried parents who hear of the child’s allegation.

But what if the supervisory personnel had strictly enforced the no-tickling rule against the childcare worker? Better too, what if the childcare worker was supervised sufficiently so that his back-rubbing actions were also caught – and subject to employee discipline as well? If so, perhaps the worker accountability question here could have been effectively reframed, not necessarily in terms of grooming – which can be so amorphous and insidious in practical terms – but rather in terms of the importance of consistently following child safety and supervision rules (all preferably accompanied by thorough staff training). In other words – zero tolerance! With that approach, the childcare worker may indeed have deserved to be terminated from employment (or volunteer service, if that is the context), well before any physical harm to the child. The situation is halted at policy non-compliance rather than alleged child abuse. That’s a far better result!

Warning Signs of Grooming

Consistent with the above caution, childcare workers and organizational leaders in particular need to identify warning signs. Here’s another example:

Volunteer B serves with Nonprofit A’s kindergarten children and often sits off in the corner with a child to read books. They can be seen, but not heard. Over time, B and the child begin to sit behind the indoor playground structure to read, and B explains that the reading area is too loud. Despite multiple instructions otherwise, B continues to take the child to the same place and then class leader sees B walk with the child to the restroom alone. When the class leader confronts B, the volunteer says the child had to urgently use the bathroom and could not find another leader to accompany them.

Identifying and addressing this grooming behavior is critical. Volunteer B seems to be isolating the child in this example, taking the child out of sight and where no one can hear their conversations. The volunteer also repeatedly broke boundaries set by the class leader.

As indicated by the above examples, the most obvious sign of potential grooming is the consistent, and unapologetic breaking of boundaries. Additional signs may not cause concern in and of themselves (like an adult giving a child a piece of candy), but in combination with one or more of the other warnings signs, they might be taken more seriously and addressed further. Here are some concerning behaviors:

· “Don’t tell your parents”. No matter the circumstances, no adult should ever tell kids not to tell their parents anything. If this phrase is shared, it must be taken seriously. Even if shared in jest, it suggests a special relationship between the adult and the child that should not be fostered and can be a key strategy in creating secrets and seeking to shift a child’s trust from his/her parents to the groomer.

· Gift giving. One of the most common and insidious ways in which a groomer exercises control over a child is through gift giving. This might be small gifts like candy or toys for smaller children, or larger, more expensive gifts like clothing, perfume, or cologne for older children. Gifts are not improper in and of themselves necessarily, but the way in which they are given, and the kind of gift could be a warning sign. For example, if candy and toys are given only to one child in a group of 10, or if gifts are given in secret, or slipped into pockets, these are warning signs. For older children, gifts of perfume or cologne, especially from a person of the opposite sex should be concerning because of the sexuality associated with such items. Similarly, clothing items— certainly intimate apparel, but also swim wear or jewelry—should also immediately raise red flags.

· Defensiveness. Some warning signals arise for the first time when confronting an individual about other conduct that seems problematic. When confronted with their conduct, groomers will often be defensive and demonstrate blame-shifting behavior. For example, they may shift blame to the children for wanting special attention or gifts. They may accuse the organization’s leaders of not making the rules clear enough, seeking to justify their breaking of boundaries or violating rules. Or they may play the victim and shift attention to the ways they are being wronged by being accused instead of responding directly to what is being asserted.

· Seeking virtual connection. Non-related adults should not have one-on-one virtual contact with children, whether via text, email, Snapchat or other social media apps unless the communication is a group communication with other adults. If an adult requests a child’s phone number, email address, or social media handle, outside of a group setting or group communication, this should be considered a warning sign, especially in combination with any of the other warning signs identified in this list.

· Extraordinary amount of time with children. Another warning sign, which can be more difficult to spot is that the person at issue spends an extraordinary amount of his/her free time working or volunteering with children. One example would be a young adult that volunteers in children’s ministry, attends kids’ events, is a schoolteacher, drives a school bus, and coaches soccer. Such inordinate amounts of time with children by adults can be an indication that the adult does not have sufficient adult relationships and seeks to meet their relational needs through children. This could be an indicator of unhealthy adult behavior and should be considered a warning sign.

· Showing up uninvited. A way a groomer may seek to demonstrate inappropriate special attention is through showing up to a child’s activities outside of the context in which that adult and child are connected. For example, a church volunteer showing up at a child’s school soccer game without having been invited or without asking the parents for permission is a red flag, particularly if it happens regularly.

· A creepy vibe or gut feeling. This last warning sign sounds unfair at first, but the reality is that when organizational leaders come across a situation involving grooming, there is almost always someone who says they got a “creepy vibe” or had a bad “gut feeling” about the person at issue. Accordingly, when a volunteer or staff member mentions getting such a feeling, this is a warning sign that more could be going on. Again, maintaining zero tolerance for boundaries and rules to be followed may be a more helpful and objective way to address what seems “creepy” or otherwise bad.

Establishing Guardrails

One of the difficulties in identifying behavior as sexually oriented “grooming” is that it can look like appropriate care and concern. This is particularly true because grooming typically occurs in situations in which adults are encouraged to have relationships with minors, like in children’s ministries, youth groups, or youth camp settings. Indeed, child predators may target these environments for the very reason that access to children and trust relationships between adults and children are expected and cultivated. This is why nonprofit leaders must prepare their organizations to identify and respond to potential grooming issues. The following best practices should help prevent and minimize grooming.

1. Implement and follow a comprehensive child protection policy that includes specific definitions, examples, and warning signs of grooming and ways to report it. Make sure the policy addresses the specific contexts involved too, such as young children, youth, camps, or other overnight program activity.[4]

2. Train all staff and volunteers in accordance with child protection policy, and specifically on grooming definitions, techniques, and the warning signs set forth above.[5]

3. Screen all childcare workers, whether paid or volunteers, through background checks, applications, references, and interviews.

4. Maintain a zero-tolerance policy for following childcare rules, allowing no exceptions or one-off decisions depending on the person involved or the circumstances. As explained above, such approach is for everyone’s protection and optimal safety.

5. Communicate regularly with children’s parents and other caregivers about child safety, including specific warning signs related to grooming. Such information may be extremely important for adults to understand, and it may help them see too that the organization cares deeply for their children.

6. Avoid allowing people around children’s programs who are not screened, trained, supervised, and known to all that they may be there. In other words, no “hangers-on.” Parents may rightfully accompany their children on field trips and other outings, but the messaging should be clear that they have no childcare responsibilities – and they should be required to follow clear rules too.

7. As a best practice, follow the “six-month rule,” which requires anyone serving as a childcare volunteer to participate in the nonprofit’s program for at least six months.

8. Be attentive to warning signs as listed above, and remain vigilant with all childcare aspects.

9. Consider how to best coordinate one-on-one mentoring, communications, and outings for optimal safety and avoiding risky situations. Also, consider what policies will set clear expectations for staff and volunteers, especially in the areas of gift-giving and virtual connections outlined above.

10. Address allegations or suspicions of grooming through appropriate investigatory steps, as determined on a case-by-case basis and with careful discernment about communicating such information to others.[6]

Risk Management Wrap Up

Effective risk management starts at the top, with attentive board members who delegate responsibility to capable leaders, who can then implement proactive safety policies and accompanying measures. Nonprofit boards should make sure that they have sufficient liability insurance coverage for their programs, covering employees, volunteers, and specific activities. It also may be helpful to provide outside training and to seek additional safety resources, such as through insurance providers, ministry resources, and background screening vendors.

Grooming may seem innocuous at surface level, but it is ultimately aimed at leading step by step into sexual misconduct that is deeply harmful to others and could result in enormous potential liability for organizations that allow such behavior. Nonprofits that care for children should thus prioritize establishing high guardrails against grooming and following through consistently, attentively, and effectively.

[1] See RAINN’s article here.
[2] See NSPCC’s article here.
[3] For more guidance focusing on mentoring versus grooming, please see the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention’s article - Grooming or Mentoring? How Do We Tell the Difference?
[4] For more information about key aspects of an effective child protection policy, please see our law firm’s blog article.
[5] In Illinois and perhaps other states, training is now required for all childcare workers – including mandated reporter requirements.
[6] Handling such matters can be highly context-specific, with significant discernment and attention potentially needed on both a short-term and long-term basis. Our law firm’s related blog article further addresses such considerations in terms of preparation, discretion, urgency, and follow-up protective measures.

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