Protecting children: Identifying signs of a child being groomed for sexual abuse
Some children do not know what qualifies as sexual abuse, Allen said, so parents need to define what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, especially with young children.
"The most important thing I would tell parents is to have an open line of communication, and that has to start with the parents, not with the child," he said.
Talk to your children
Dodgion said parents should talk to the child about the relationship, too. Like Heiner, some children may not understand that they are being victimized.
This is true with teenage boys, who often don't realize they did not have a choice in the relationship.
"There's a power differential. It's not a relationship between equals," he said.
One mother believes this is the case with her 17-year-old son, who she said had a relationship as a minor with his former teacher. The son will not admit the relationship to detectives because he thinks they are in love, she said.
She thinks that her 17-year-old was targeted because he was struggling socially.
“As a mother, I see what he’s gone through, and it’s really heartbreaking. It really is, because he is a victim and she is a predator. Even if he wasn’t tied down and made to have sex with her, he’s a victim emotionally,” she said.
The difference in power is an important point to make, according to Trina Taylor, executive director for Prevent Child Abuse Utah, a nonprofit organization working to use education and training to help stop child abuse.
"It's never a child's fault," Taylor said.
Prevent Child Abuse Utah trains and helps develop curriculum to teach children about what they call body safety.
This involves telling children that their body is just for them and that they can trust their "uh-oh" feeling when something does not seem right. They explain the difference between a good secret (birthday surprise, presents, etc.) and a bad secret (abuse) and help them identify trusted adults whom they can tell about abuse.
Parents who notice signs of grooming should bring up their concerns with the person of trust and set boundaries, which may help prevent the escalation of the relationship, Dodgion said.
"I don't know that the intent is always for the relationship to be a sexual one. Sometimes I think, certainly, that's the case, but I don't think that's necessarily always the case," he said.
Hope for adults, children
Dodgion emphasized that there are plenty of appropriate relationships between a child and a trusted adult.
Some people come in for treatment with Dodgion before they act out inappropriately, but that is not often the case. He has seen offenders rehabilitate successfully through treatment. A big part of their treatment comes through being accountable for their actions.
"Offenders absolutely can be rehabilitated and most of the time want to not reoffend and go down that path," Dodgion said.
There is also hope for those who have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted adult.
Preston Jensen returned to the offender's house as an adult and glanced through the basement window. As a child, he remembers wishing he could escape the abuse. As an adult, he has escaped. He has since faced the man in court and learned to be happy.
His seizures have stopped, he is working, living on his own and has shared his story with others in hopes of being what he needed as a child: a hero. His most recent efforts are in promoting HB286, a bill that would provide sexual assault awareness education for parents, teachers and students. That bill passed the House Thursday.
Heiner identifies herself as an author, speaker and survivor. She is developing a nonprofit organization called "I am." to help survivors of assault define who they really are. She wrote a statement for HB286 and attended its presentation to the Utah House of Representatives on Thursday.
Her healing came through therapy, working as an advocate and her religious beliefs. When she first cut ties with Niedzwiecki, he returned a box of belongings that included letters he'd written, a bracelet he had purchased with her with the word "taken" on it, and a journal that he kept that reminded him of her. She handed the box over to a detective as evidence for her case. She sees the box and its contents as symbolic.
"It's up to you what you do with that pile of stuff that's given to you. You can either hold onto it and you can let it define who you are or you can let it go and take your life back. And I that think it's important to define yourself how you want to be defined," Heiner said.
Parents can find tips for talking to their children about sexual abuse on The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's website.
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