Protecting children: Identifying signs of a child being groomed for sexual abuse

Published: Friday, Feb. 28 2014 5:25 p.m. MST

Weber State University Student Association Secretary Jamie Heiner answers questions Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, from student senators about HB257 and their support. The bill deals with the crime of aggravated sexual abuse of a child.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Special attention. Unearned extra credit. A chance in middle school to present a project with college students. Compliments.

When paired with hugging, touching her knee, comments about her body and appearance, and other behaviors, these acts were the signs that Jaime Heiner was being groomed for an illicit relationship by her ninth-grade science teacher at a Kaysville charter school.

Heiner learned to lie about the relationship with Stephen Niedzwiecki, 34, to her parents and others. It went undetected for two years. Now, she has advice for people who are in similar situations.

"If it doesn't look right, then it's not," she said.

Niedzwiecki will be sentenced in March for two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old, in connection to the sexual activity with Heiner that started when she was 15.

But his story is not unique. He is one of more than 20 teachers, coaches or other people in positions of trust over children to go through Utah's courts in the past five years in connection with some measure of sexual abuse of a child.

In most cases, the perpetrator is not a pedophile but engages in a pattern of grooming to satisfy emotional or sexual needs by gaining trust and blurring boundaries.

Heiner’s grooming took place through the school year: a special project in October, talking with her in his classroom while asking questions about her faith’s stance toward sexual matters, games of Frisbee golf, a comment in March about no longer viewing her as a student, requesting a list of requirements a guy needed to meet before a kiss.

“It happened slowly. I mean, I had no idea what was happening until it was too late. … He was my teacher. I never thought that he would hurt me,” said Heiner, who turns 18 this month.

He kissed her in April. When she was no longer his student, the abuse began. The Heiner family, members of the LDS Church, had been hosting Niedzwiecki in their home so he could learn about their faith from missionaries. A few months after the abuse started, he became a member of the church. He asked her parents for permission to date her. They declined. He told her parents he would never touch her, Heiner said, "and at that point he had already been abusing me for months."

A question of trust

Most sexual abuse occurs at the hands of a person the child knows and trusts, according to research from the American Psychological Association.

The association estimates that 60 percent of abusers are those the child knows but who are not related to the child. This includes teachers, baby sitters, neighbors and family friends. About 30 percent are family members. Only 10 percent of perpetrators are strangers.

"I didn’t ever see any of the grooming,” said Paula Jensen, a mother of four whose son was sexually abused.

In this case, it was the stepfather of her son's best friend.

Jensen described herself as a protective parent. She did not work when her kids were young and would sit outside when her son was playing.

Her son, Preston, was a good student and well-behaved.

He kept the memories of the abuse to himself, but the unresolved trauma began manifesting itself physically with stomach pain and bleeding. It turned into seizures between ages 21 and 28. Tests revealed that he did not have epilepsy; therapy sessions helped reveal the abuse.

The sexual abuse, which occurred during sleepovers, progressed in small steps, Preston Jensen said. It started with a touch or a rub, which seemed innocent coming from a trusted adult, and progressed to inappropriate touching and eventually to rape. It continued off and on between the ages of 8 and 13.

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