The signs we all missed when a child we knew and loved was being abused

by Karyn Henger / 13 March, 2019
This article was first published on Now To Love.
mum hugging child

The much-talked-about Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland brings back some painful memories, writes Karyn Henger.

I'm probably not the only parent who has thought a lot about the documentary, Leaving Neverland, since it screened on TVNZ this week.

It upset me because it took me back to a time I'd rather forget where we all missed the signs for a child we knew, who was being sexually abused.

Leaving Neverland focuses on the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, then-little boys that Jackson became close to and then allegedly abused over a number of years when his star shone its brightest. The documentary is an important piece of work because it's as much about giving people an understanding of what grooming a child for sexual abuse looks like as it is about giving these now young men a voice.

There are many assumptions about the sexual abuse of children - that it's easy to recognise an abuser because they're creepy or unlikable, that the abuse happens from day one and that you can teach children to recognise it because it will give them a 'funny feeling' in their stomach.

Read more: YouTube’s paedophile problem is only a small part of online child sexual abuse | Justice's blindfold appears to have slipped in Grant Hannis' sexual assault case

But an abuser is often well-respected and well-liked in his social group. He can spend months and years manipulating a child - and the child's family - to 'fall in love' with him and trust him implicitly.

Touching can begin harmlessly enough - physical play that children would generally do together - and when it gradually changes over time a child will not even realise they are being abused because their trust in their abuser is so great, and their understanding of human connection is so limited. It's shaped by the adults around them.

That same trust - because they will be groomed to believe that this must remain their little secret or something terrible will happen to them, their abuser or their family - paralyses a child from revealing the abuse, even to other adults they trust.

I used to be close with a woman, who I'll call Jane*, who devastatingly found out that her brother-in-law had been sexually abusing her daughter for some years.

We had all thought Grant* was such a good guy. He was a regular at the family get-togethers and great with Jane's kids. He often had a girlfriend, but they never seemed to last. We put it down to him having not found 'the one'.

When Jane's husband died unexpectedly it was Grant who moved in to lend his support. If we didn't think he was incredible before, we certainly did now. He helped out with the cooking and cleaning, and taking care of the kids. Those first few weeks for Jane were very tough and Grant was there for her every step of the way.

The weeks turned into months, and Grant had not been seen with a girlfriend for a while. The more cynical among us began watching him to make sure he wasn't trying to make a move on his dead brother's grieving wife.

But it was not Jane he was after; he had his sights set on her preschool-aged daughter.

The grooming had begun before Jane's husband died. Grant spent a lot of time at their home and was always at hand to babysit when Jane and her husband went out. But it intensified once he moved into the house.

From the couch, he moved into Jane's daughter's room to sleep at night, claiming he could comfort her when she had bad dreams, and save Jane from having to get up in the night.

Yes, I have to say it seemed questionable, but Jane was comfortable with it; in her upbringing it was accepted for children to sleep with adults, usually their parents.

If she'd had an inkling, she wouldn't have let Grant anywhere near them - she was a good mum. But she was so oblivious I can even remember a conversation we had at her house one day about a man in the neighbourhood that some of the parents suspected to be a paedophile.

Grant was there – wandering in and out of earshot as we talked about this man's behaviour. He must have been laughing at us. The irony stank.

The abuse continued for four years until one day Jane's sister came to stay. Grant was out of town so the sister slept with Jane's daughter instead.

It was the way that Jane's daughter tried to touch her during the night that made Jane's sister deeply concerned.

A medical professional who had dealt with abuse victims in her work, she talked to Jane about it in the morning then had Jane's daughter draw her some pictures of Grant.

The images were sickening. The police were called and social services moved quickly to provide the family with support.

Jane was devastated; she felt she'd failed her daughter and couldn't comprehend how long it had been going on.

She hired a skip and put it out on the front lawn and threw out every single item that Grant had ever owned or brought into the house.

Over the weeks and months that followed they found out more and more about the extent of the abuse. It took Jane's daughter a long time to trust them, even her own mother, with the secrets she'd been keeping.

Grant is now in prison and listed on the Child Sex Offender register. Heartbreakingly, his mother rang Jane and accused her and her daughter of making up lies.

Jane continued with her daughter's therapy. Part of it was to regularly take her swimming because being in water is said to be incredibly soothing.

I haven't seen much of Jane recently but we keep in touch on social media and her daughter looks happy and well.

That's how she looks. Do you ever get over it? She was robbed of her childhood by someone she trusted.

When I look back I ask myself 'what did I see?' I saw a grown man sleeping with a child, which I'd noted as questionable but said nothing about. I'd noticed at social gatherings that he'd always gravitated towards the children, shunning adult conversation, but I'd put that down to him being "great with kids" and maybe shy.

I saw a man who couldn't seem to settle down with a partner - that didn't seem unusual. When he'd moved in with Jane and the kids I had thought that was unusual - but I'd justified it by thinking he was a kinder human being than most.

As difficult and confronting as child sex abuse is to talk about, it's important we do because awareness is everything. I am a mother; I would never have thought I could look a paedophile in the eye and not see him for what he was. I would not have believed I could have a friend that had welcomed a paedophile into her home, and then not noticed the abuse.

The grooming and sexual abuse of children happens because we trust - and I'm not saying we should not trust, but we should ask questions and not brush things off if something doesn't feel quite right.

Abusers are skilled manipulators and their intention is to deceive. But we can make things difficult for them to manipulate.

Some simple rules to follow are:

  • Have children sleep alone in their own beds
  • Be careful who you let into your home
  • Talk to your child about not having secrets
  • Make sure your child knows you believe them when they tell you something
  • Be wary of people who single out your child or who want to spend time with them without you, or who seem permissive - letting your child do things with them that you wouldn't allow at home.

We need to be smart - our children depend on us for it.

This article was first published on Now To Love.

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