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Online exclusive: Creating safe environments for children

Nancy Bicchieri  |  24 May 2017

Nancy Bicchieri from Catholic Education Melbourne looks at the Royal Commission’s research paper on grooming and provides some tips for Catholic communities on reducing the opportunity for grooming behaviours in schools.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been tasked with investigating how institutions - schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations - have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse. It’s role is to detect where systems might have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations as to how laws, policies, practices and systems can be changed.

A recent research paper prepared by the Commission, ‘Grooming and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts’, authored by Professor Patrick O’Leary, Emma Koh and Andrew Dare, considers current understandings of grooming, what grooming behaviour is and how it relates to child sexual abuse in institutions such as schools.

While the report is mostly focused on distilling that research, it is also valuable in assisting schools, teachers and parents in developing an understanding of what grooming is and how child sexual abuse in schools might be identified and prevented.

What does ‘grooming’ look like?

Sexually inappropriate behaviour with a child often begins with grooming. In some instances children are made to feel special and protected, abusers will sometimes buy gifts or look for opportunities to be alone with the child to build a rapport of trust leading to greater intimacy and sometimes dependency. The behaviours are varied and mostly conducted secretly, usually in isolated settings and away from easy line of sight or supervision. 

The research paper notes that there is no clear and nationally accepted definition of grooming. The definitions in criminal offences in each State of Australia differ, as does the approach taken by researchers to the concept.

The Commission's report favours a new definition that has emerged from the research. That definition acknowledges that a perpetrator may use grooming and its associated techniques not only to facilitate child sexual abuse, but also as a means of concealing abuse that has already started.

How to identify grooming

Identifying grooming is a complex and difficult task, mainly because grooming can consist of a range of behaviours, techniques and activities many of which may not be clearly of a sexual or abusive nature in themselves. Grooming behaviours can also co-exist with other regular behaviour or functions within an otherwise normal relationship with a child. There are two pivotal messages to keep in mind in this respect:

1. Grooming does not always occur in an identifiable set of stages - while grooming behaviour can often be an incremental process of establishing trust in order to gain access to a child, some perpetrators of abuse may engage in that abuse where access to a child occurs by chance. This type of perpetrator is known as an opportunistic or situational perpetrator; and

2. Grooming can have multiple targets - perpetrators may also groom others, including teachers, parents and other care givers, with the intent of either using those relationships to gain access to a child or to conceal abuse.

Teachers, parents or carers must be vigilant and not miss the signs when it comes to grooming behaviour.  We also need to avoid stereotyping grooming perpetrators as being only male or looking a certain way, or age, or from a particular cultural background, they unfortunately come in ‘all shapes and sizes’.        

Creating safer environments in schools

It is important for schools and teachers to bear in mind that there may be certain features unique to their particular school environment – both of a physical and organisational nature – which can be manipulated by a perpetrator to facilitate child sexual abuse. For example, are there areas of the school that are isolated or difficult to supervise? Does the design and architecture of classrooms, bathrooms, change rooms and public areas allow for open and transparent interactions with children? Do schools have buildings with a large number of exits, entrances, hallways or confined spaces that might increase the likelihood that grooming behaviours can be concealed and perpetrator can avoid suspicion?

There are practical measures that schools can take to address any physical environmental factors, for example redesigning or modifying buildings to improve natural surveillance by ensuring all rooms have glass viewing panels or windows. Designing child safe schools is imperative ‘to ensure a balance between reducing risks and maintaining a positive, healthy and friendly environment for children and adults’ (Professor Stephen Smallbone, Griffiths Criminology Institute). 

Schools should consider their organizational culture, including their policies, procedures and values. For example, is there a strong level of knowledge amongst staff members as to what grooming techniques are? Do policies provide adequate and consistent supervision of children? Is there a willingness amongst staff to intervene in potentially inappropriate behaviours? Do community members have a clear and formal set of rules/expectations of behaviour and a process to ensure the rules about staff and student relationships and boundaries is applied consistently? Does the community have a clear, documented and understood process to report concerns about inappropriate behaviour?

Screening and recruitment

There are no specific or easily identifiable risk factors that can assist in detecting potential perpetrators of child sexual abuse prior to their involvement in schools – schools cannot necessarily rely on Working With Children's Checks and general criminal record screening checks to identify potential perpetrators. However, the Commission's Report suggests another technique at the selection and recruitment level – using Value Based Interviewing (which attempts to provide in-depth information about candidates' attitudes, character, and behaviour at work) to recruit candidates with positive attitudes towards safeguarding children who will, it is suggested, be more likely to identify and address safeguarding issues at work.

Policy and procedural responses

Schools also need to equip teachers and other staff members with appropriate knowledge and training to be able to make assessments about the motivation or intention behind certain behaviours (grooming), that may lead to potential child sexual abuse.  

Inappropriate/high risk behavior can be varied from physical boundary violations (for example; inappropriate touching or caressing/hugging), to emotional boundary violations (for example; inappropriate private texting, buying gifts, flirting (possible sexual innuendo), becoming Facebook friends, intimate language used by the perpetrator referring to a child by a nickname or words such as ‘baby’ or ‘honey’.

Schools should consider putting in place processes that facilitate the reporting of suspected grooming, as well as appropriate measures to manage such reports. Schools should not underestimate the power of being open and transparent about their policies (located on school’s website, if possible) and processes to protect children – this will facilitate a culture in which obligations are made clear and secrecy and failures to report suspected abuse are minimised.

Policies should be supported by ongoing training and professional development for teachers and volunteers, by participating in education forums in relation to child safety, provide information to parents/carers on various child safety topics, inviting experts to present at schools on child safety topics or by taking part in initiatives around child safety in schools similar to the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence.     

Can grooming be schooled out?

Given the complexity around this behaviour, grooming is not entirely preventable in schools, just as bullying and critical incidents are not preventable.

Prevention techniques and strategies are therefore key factors to reduce the opportunity for grooming behaviours in schools. Clear and widely communicated policies and strategies are crucial and set the foundation around identifying risk indicators for staff to ensure a strong child safe culture exists in every school.

Children need to have a voice when it comes to child safety and this is often overlooked. They need to feel empowered and have a platform to speak out confidently if something is not right or does not feel right.  They need to be taught the appropriate vocabulary to describe the grooming behaviour.  It is my view that more work needs to be done in this area, this is to ensure that children do not retreat to their silent world because they are unable to describe what is happening to them.      

Parents/carers also have a crucial role in educating their children in this space, open communication is very important with children where no subject is ‘off limits’. This will assist in breaking down the wall of secrecy that is usually evident when a perpetrator manipulates the child to keep what is happening only between them.  It is also not uncommon for perpetrators to blackmail children or make threats, for example, demanding that they do not talk to anyone about their ‘special relationship’ and if they do then terrible consequences will follow  (either for themselves or their family). Such fear can paralyse children to the point where they ‘shut down’, feeling isolated and trapped by the perpetrator.  

Nancy Bicchieri is the General Corporate Legal Counsel for Catholic Education Melbourne. The full research paper can be found here.




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