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

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

"It's something that we'll have to live with for the rest of our lives knowing that he went through horrible things as a little kid and that we weren't there to take that pain away," Paula Jensen said.

She sees now that Preston's constant worry for his parents' well-being and reluctance to spend much time with friends were symptoms of his abuse.

Her son said he did not come forward for fear of what could happen to his family.

"It's amazing what fear does to kids," Preston Jensen said.

He remembers looking out the window one time when his mom was an hour late in coming home. He began crying out of worry that the offender had delivered on his promise to harm his family.

Kenneth Burr, 65, is now serving 10 years in prison for his crimes against Preston. He had previously pleaded guilty to attempted sex abuse of a child in a separate case and was sentenced to three years' probation and 10 years on the sex offense registry.

Most people think that people who commit these crimes are pedophiles who are preying on or attracted to children, according to psychologist David Dodgion, director of Associated Clinical & Counseling in Salt Lake. Most of the time, offenders match a different profile.

Sexual abuse was the most common type of abuse investigated by the Division of Child and Family Services in the 2012 fiscal year. Sexual abuse made up 2,526 of the 9,359 abuse cases the agency investigated in Utah. Of these, about 1,840 were committed by a parent.

In addition to his general psychology practice, Dodgion conducts assessments on and provides therapy to those who have committed sexual offenses. He has seen two types of sex offenders in his 20 years of experience. Pedophiles make up the minority of these cases.

Pedophiles have a sexual preference for children, he said. In general, they target strangers, have multiple victims and threaten those they abuse.

“That’s a much more serious and concerning offender and someone who is more what you think of as kind of a pedophile or fixated pedophile," Dodgion said.

The type of perpetrators he sees more often commit what he refers to as "relationship-oriented" offenses.

While "there's no specific psychological profile for an abuser," many of them share similar characteristics, he said.

Common signs

Would-be abusers are often manipulative, have a sense of entitlement and feel the rules do not apply to them, he said. They are “not very successful in their adult relationships, not able to get their needs met in those relationships and that’s, I think, when they’re at risk to turn to children … to meet their emotional needs.

“And so those boundaries sort of begin to blur, you know, between professional and personal. … The individual turns to the child to begin to meet some of their emotional needs and that progresses into meeting their sexual needs," he said.

Some of these blurred boundaries include frequent text and Facebook messages, spending time with the child outside of a professional setting and granting special favors.

Additional signs of grooming involve an adult giving excessive attention or gifts to a child that are "unwarranted," according to Brian Allen, a clinical psychologist at Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Hospital.

Echoing Heiner, he also included "any of those kinds of things that kind of makes you just take notice and think that something just doesn't seem quite right."

It is important that parents discuss this topic with their children in calm, matter-of-fact tones, Allen said. This is so children know that their parents will be comfortable talking about abuse if it were to happen.

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