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The Home Office has recently stated it would “leave no stone unturned” in its attempt to tackle child sexual grooming in the UK. Official figures recently revealed almost 19,000 children were sexually groomed in England in the year 2018 to 2019.
High-profile grooming cases including in Rotherham, Rochdale and Telford have involved groups of men of mainly Pakistani ethnicity, fuelling a perception that it is an “Asian problem”. However, the majority of child sexual abuse gangs are made up of white men under the age of 30. The Home Office paper into the “characteristics” of such gangs, first promised by the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid in 2018, says “while some studies show a possible over-representation of black and Asian offenders, it is not possible to conclude this is representative of all grooming gangs”.
What is Grooming?
Grooming is when a person builds a relationship with a child, young person or an adult who is at risk, so they can abuse them and manipulate them into doing things. Grooming is manipulative behaviour 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. While these tactics are used most often against younger children, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk.
Grooming can occur in person or online, but under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, any form of communication with a child for the purpose of sexually abusing them is considered grooming.
The Home Office defines grooming as “a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of the child”.
Under current UK law it is an offence to arrange or to facilitate a meeting with a child under the age of 16 with the intent of sexually abusing the child, or with the intent of another individual sexually abusing them. It’s also an offence to meet a child following the process of grooming. Whether grooming takes place in person or online, the law is clear. In April 2017 sexual communication with a child was made an offence. This means that groomers who target children via SMS messages, emails or social media with the intention of causing a sexual response can receive a maximum sentence of two years in prison and be placed on the sex offenders’ register.
Grooming is also used by offenders with the aim of other forms of abuse, such as criminal exploitation or trafficking of children. In all cases of grooming, it is never the child or young person’s fault.
Sky News reported that between April 2020 and March 2021, there was 5,441 Sexual Communication with a Child offences recorded, an increase of 69% from 3,217 in 2017/18.
What are the Types of Grooming?
Grooming can take place online or in person and it can happen over a short or long period of time, from days to years. A groomer can be a stranger or someone the victim already knows and trusts, for example through a friend or family member, by a friend of the family or a family member themselves, or by an authority figure at a club that they go to such as a sports club, or faith group. Groomers can build a relationship with their victims, for example as a teacher, mentor, coach, friend or romantically, or they can use other victims to entice their peers.
Groomers are good at lying about who they are, particularly online where they can create a false identity and pretend to be younger than they are.
People can be groomed online through, for example:
- Social media networks.
- Text messages and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, TikTok.
- Text, voice and video chats in forums, games and apps.
Online grooming often involves adults creating fake profiles and posing as children or teens in order to befriend someone and gain their trust. This may be the first step towards sexual abuse or online stalking or harassment.
Although grooming can take many different forms, it often follows a similar pattern.
Victim selection – Abusers often observe possible victims and select them based on ease of access to them or their perceived vulnerability.
Gaining access and isolating the victim – Abusers will attempt to physically or emotionally separate a victim from those protecting them and often seek out positions in which they have contact with children, teens or young adults.
Trust development and keeping secrets – Abusers attempt to gain the trust of a potential victim through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret.
Desensitisation to touch and discussion of sexual topics – Abusers will often start to touch a victim in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, wrestling and tickling, and later escalate to increasingly more sexual contact, such as massages or showering together. Abusers may also show the victim pornography or discuss sexual topics with them, to introduce the idea of sexual contact.
What are the Signs of Grooming?
It can be very difficult to tell if someone is being groomed as the signs aren’t always obvious and may be hidden.
Some signs to look out for might include but are not limited to:
- Are they being secretive about how they are spending their time?
- Do they have an older boyfriend or girlfriend?
- Do they have money or new things like clothes and mobile phones that they can’t or won’t explain?
- Are they drinking or taking drugs?
- Are they spending more or less time than usual online or on their devices?
- Do they seem upset or withdrawn?
- Are they using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know?
- Are they spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time?
Groomers/abusers attempt to make their behaviour seem natural to avoid raising suspicions. For teens, who may be closer in age to the abuser, it can be particularly hard to recognise tactics used in grooming.
Often a person won’t know they are being groomed, as they will trust their abuser who is giving them lots of attention and gifts. Also, their groomer may have warned them not to talk to anyone about it. It can be difficult to work out whether someone is trying to groom you. However, there are some early warning signs, things that might help you realise that someone is acting in a way that isn’t okay.
If you are suspicious try asking yourself a few questions:
- Did they ask for really personal information about you or someone else, especially early on in your relationship?
- Do they want you to keep your relationship a secret from other people?
- Do they want to meet with you alone or in secret?
- Do they want you to send them pictures of you or of other people, and/or want to send you photos of themselves?
- Do you feel pressured into doing or saying things that make you feel uncomfortable?
- Have they asked about your sexual experiences, or how you feel about doing certain sexual things?
- Do they send or give you gifts or things that you think are either excessive, such as things that are very valuable, or very personal or are very grown up for your age, such as alcohol, tobacco or drugs?
- Do they ask you to move your webcam so they can see certain things?
- Do they seem to already know things about you that you haven’t told them?
- Are they over 18, while you are under 18? Although you can be groomed by people your own age and they might be lying about their age
Remember, if something doesn’t feel right, even slightly, then it probably isn’t. It can be difficult to recognise that you are a victim of grooming. Quite often the person who is grooming you will want you to think that you are in a relationship with them, and that they are your boyfriend or girlfriend. But what is really happening could be child sexual abuse.
Groomers may also try to blackmail you. They might try to persuade you to send sexual images of yourself by saying they will be hurt or upset if you don’t. If you have sent images of yourself already, they could threaten to post your images online or show them to people you know if you don’t send them more.
What Effects can Grooming Have?
The sexual abuse may occur just a few times or it could continue for years, even extending into adulthood. The fact that it occurred at all will have lasting effects on the survivor. One of the key effects of grooming is that the survivor is left carrying the shame of the events, often represented in a sense of complicity, that they let it happen. This self-blame makes the abuse difficult to talk about. Grooming makes it more difficult to identify when abuse is happening, and more difficult to identify and talk about in retrospect.
In online grooming cases, a child’s trust has been violated by the offender, and this betrayal of trust can harm a child’s ability to relate to others later in life. A child who has been groomed online may feel responsible for or deserving of the abuse, making it more difficult for the child to disclose the abuse.
Following a grooming experience, the child may suffer numerous negative effects such as:
Even in the absence of physical sexual abuse, the child may be traumatised and suffer long-lasting emotional damage caused by non-contact sexual abuse. The abuse also may lead to a shift in the survivor’s attitudes and social values regarding sexual behaviour and promiscuous sexual activity.
Who is at Risk of Being Groomed?
Whilst it is clear that there are things that make some children more vulnerable to being groomed than others, there is no factor which makes any group of children, teens or young adults uniquely vulnerable. Although awareness of vulnerability can be helpful, it can also contribute to stereotypes about what a victim of child sexual exploitation looks like, with the consequence that victims who differ from that picture are overlooked or unwilling to come forward in the belief that they will not be believed.
Groomers may target and exploit a child’s perceived vulnerabilities including: emotional neediness, isolation, neglect, a chaotic home life, or lack of parental oversight, etc.
Can Grooming be Prevented?
Online grooming can be a difficult issue to tackle with children but there are practical tips and tools you can use to help them recognise when they are at risk and take action.
Keep personal information private
Private details which could identify them in the real world such as name, age, gender, phone number, home address, school name and photographs should only ever be shared with people they know.
Spend time with the child looking at the privacy settings that can benefit their online safety. It is always best to assume that default settings are public and should be changed accordingly.
Reviewing apps, sties and games the child uses
You will probably use social networks yourself, but you might want to know about new ones that your child is using or wants to use. Use them yourself and set up your own account so you can experience what your child might see. There are also many child-friendly social networks they could use while they get ready for sites such as Snapchat and Instagram. It is also important to explore the types of activities they do online. Live streaming, YouTube shorts, video games and social media sites all have different forms of communication. Have conversations about their digital use to stay in the know.
There is a range of new apps and software that block, filter and monitor online behaviour. You will need to decide as a family whether this is the right approach for you, taking into consideration your child’s age and maturity, and their need for privacy.
Encourage children to talk to someone
If something makes your child worried or uncomfortable online their best course of action is always to talk to an adult they trust. You can also direct them to organisations such as Childline (contact details are at the end of this article).
Be approachable and talk to children and teens about groomers online
Talk about grooming as you would stranger danger; a stranger is anyone they don’t know, whether in real life or online. Let them know you are there to help them if they get into trouble online, and if they are concerned about something that they can come to you. Teenagers may be very protective of their online network and feel you are interfering with their private lives. However, one of the best ways to support child protection is to make them aware of online harms.
You can play a critical role in identifying signs that someone may be engaging in child sexual exploitation or grooming a child or young person for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.
Report suspected abuse if you:
- Feel uncomfortable about the way an adult interacts with a child or children
- Suspect that the adult may be engaging in sexual abuse of a child or children
- Suspect that the adult is grooming the child or children for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity
- Reasonably believe that the adult is at risk of engaging in sexual behaviour with a child or children.
In many cases the signs that an adult is sexually abusing or grooming a child with the intent of sexually abusing them may not be obvious. However, it can be prevented if everyone remains vigilant to grooming behaviours.
The sex offenders’ register was introduced in 1997 and it holds details of all persons convicted, cautioned or released from prison for a sexual offence. Convicted sex offenders must register with the police within three days of conviction, or release from prison, giving their name, address, bank account details and national insurance number, among other information. If details change, such as when a registered offender moves house or changes their name, they must disclose this information within three days, whilst they must also inform the police if they wish to travel outside of the UK.
How is Grooming Reported?
Grooming is an offence. If you suspect a person is being groomed, even if you are not sure, please tell someone. If you think that you are being groomed, you should tell someone, call 999 and ask for the police, or you can contact any of the following:
Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) – A law enforcement agency keeping children and young people safe from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Childline – A free, private and confidential service where children can talk to a trained counsellor about anything that’s troubling them, any time of day. Call 0800 1111
Lucy Faithfull Foundation – A UK-wide charity set up to tackle child sexual abuse.
Victim Support – A national charity dedicated to helping anyone affected by crime, not just victims and witnesses, but friends, family and anyone else caught up in the aftermath.
Thinkuknow – An education programme keeping children and young people safe by teaching about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.
If you are reporting sexual abuse or grooming, a Child Protection Advisor will contact you by phone or email as soon as they can and will work with you to make a plan to keep you safe. The Child Protection Advisor may need to talk to other adults about what you tell them to help keep you safe.
The true extent of grooming and child abuse in the UK is unknown, partly because survivors find it difficult to speak about what happened to them. It is usual for a person to take many years to first disclose abuse suffered in childhood, and it is believed that many people are never able to discuss it. Many children and young people don’t realise that they are being groomed, or that what is happening or has happened is abuse.
All children have the right to grow up safe from abuse. Talking with children about grooming and protecting children from sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help children grow and thrive.