An assessment of most child abuse cases points to sexual grooming preceding the abuse. Sexual predators use sexual grooming to gain an individual’s or an organization’s trust to sexually abuse their targets, with teens, children, and vulnerable adults accounting for many victims.

Understanding seductive grooming and perpetrators' behaviors is pivotal in helping professionals prevent sexual abuse. Prosecutors use sexual grooming as evidence to convict sexual offenders. The evidence substantiates sexual abuse allegations where the victim’s testimony is misleading or unclear.

Sexual Grooming

SMART (The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking) defines grooming as the method through which offenders build trust with a minor and adults around children, aiming at gaining access to and time alone with the minor.

Offenders can also use threats and physical violence to abuse or sexually assault children. These instances account for a smaller portion of all sexual abuse cases. Child abusers prefer subtle approaches when building relationships with the target families.

Offenders assume a caring role with this subtle approach. They abuse a position of trust or authority or befriend a minor to groom the minor and/or the child’s family. These actions are intentional. They also deliberately target adults with children around or children with less adult supervision. This approach ensures that the offender is welcomed and the time spent with the child is encouraged.

There are several reasons to consider that motivate offenders to groom their targets, namely:

  • To reduce the possibility of the abuse being detected.
  • To manipulate the perception of the adults around the child.
  • To reduce the likelihood of the minor being believed, should he/she disclose their experience of abuse.
  • Manipulating the minor to be a cooperating participant. Doing so reduces the likelihood that the child will disclose abuse or instances of sexual assault. It also increases the possibility of the child returning to the offender.

Grooming Behaviors

Any measure adopted to prevent sexual assault and abuse starts by identifying grooming behaviors. Most behaviors are subtle and could appear innocent rather than inappropriate. The behaviors offenders exhibit include:

  • Fixation on a child
  • Showing particular interest in a minor
  • Displaying favoritism towards a specific child within a family or a group set up
  • Frequently creating or initiating opportunities to be alone with a child or multiple children
  • Gifting a child every so often
  • Giving exceptional privileges to a child, for example, offering rides to or from school or volunteering to help the child with after-school activities
  • Displaying gender and age preferences
  • Attending to the child’s interests — These actions aim at drawing the parent’s attention to initiate contact with the offender.

Offenders also use arousal behavior in the grooming process. Offenders intend to arouse themselves, the target adult, or the child. In children, the behaviors arouse sexual interest in them. The behaviors include the following.

  • Bathing the child
  • Walking in on the child dressing
  • Wrestling in underwear
  • Asking the minor to watch while the adult is in the toilet
  • Intentionally walking on the child while he/she is toileting
  • Tickling and “accidentally” touching the minor’s genitalia
  • Engaging in activities that require the removal of clothes, like swimming or a massage
  • Narrating to a child sexually explicit jokes or stories
  • Teasing a child about genital and breast development
  • Showing a minor sexually explicit content, including images, videos, magazines, or books
  • Engaging in sexual conversations under the guise of offering sex education
  • Taking photos and recording videos of the child in his/her bathing suit, underwear, or dancewear

Children often exhibit behavioral changes when being groomed by an adult. Additionally, these behavioral changes in children are also characteristic of being blackmailed or sexually abused. These behaviors also reinforce the allegations of sexual grooming.

  • Appearing extremely fatigued in school
  • Regular absenteeism from school, work, training, or other activities
  • Exhibiting an unusually close relationship with an adult
  • Lying about where he/she has been
  • Displaying mood changes, that is, the child becomes irritable, aggressive, secretive, resentful, hyperactive, withdrawn, anxious, or depressed
  • The child suddenly possesses new clothes, shoes, and electronics that you did not purchase
  • The minor is suddenly flush with money, far more than he/she receives at work or as an allowance
  • Talking about new friends who do not belong in the usual social circle or are from another neighborhood
  • Being picked up by a new friend or an adult from school
  • The child became dishonest about who they were with or where he/she was
  • Indulging in the use of drugs and the consumption of alcohol
  • Using a new phone and constantly chatting and making calls

Online Grooming

The online space has seen a growth of interactions on various online platforms. The development has also created an environment where predators groom minors without the knowledge of the child’s guardian or parents. Predators use live-streaming platforms, social media, messaging apps, and online gaming sites.

Chatting, making videos, and making calls is the norm with the current generation. However, parents and adults must pay close attention, especially if the children become secretive about it. Threats of blackmail are also signs of sexual grooming. For example, chats suggest humiliating the child if he/she does not send revealing photos or videos or engage in sexual acts.

Online grooming is more complex than in-person sexual grooming. Adults often rely on children to report suspicious interactions. In other cases, experts are needed to determine whether grooming occurred. This could require a review of past interactions with the minor on the online platforms.

How the Law Protects Victims From Sexual Grooming

There is a need to protect the victim. Thus, understanding sexual grooming and reporting the same to authorities is a key step to preventing sexual grooming from escalating to sexual assault or abuse.

Whereas sexual grooming is a precursor to criminal offenses like sexual abuse, parents do not have to wait for the crime to occur for them to report instances of sexual grooming. In specific contexts, sexual grooming is a standalone crime.

Federal Enticement Statute

The federal enticement statute, United States Criminal Code Section § 2422(a), makes it a crime for an individual to deliberately or attempt to use interstate commerce to persuade, coerce, entice, or persuade an individual less than 18 years old to engage in prostitution or any sexual act that can result in criminal prosecution.

The statute targets individuals who sexually groom minors or sexually exploit them. The statute’s definition of what constitutes a crime focuses on the intended effects on the children rather than the perpetrators' intent to engage in sexual activities.

Violations of the federal enticement statute will result in a fine, a prison sentence not exceeding 20 years or both.

Section § 2422(b) states that anyone who uses mail or any other means of foreign or interstate commerce or within the jurisdiction of the United States knowingly induces, persuades, coerces, or entices a minor to engage in prostitution or a sexual activity that is a prosecutable offense commits a crime.

Violations are punishable by a fine, a prison sentence not exceeding ten years, or both.

It is also evident under section (b) of the statute that the focus is on the attempt by the defendant to coerce or persuade a child to engage in an illegal sexual act rather than his/her intent to commit an unlawful sexual act with the minor.

Therefore, the prosecution must prove the defendant intended to commit the crime and took a substantial step to see the offense actualized. Only then can the defendant be found guilty. Substantial steps refer to acts exceeding mere preparation, but less than the final act before the crime was committed.

Expert Testimony Evidence

Some adults who look out for possible grooming behaviors could view normal interactions with the child and mistake those for sexual grooming, for example, buying a child a gift. There is a need to draw a distinction and determine whether an activity meets the sexual grooming threshold. This has created the need for expert testimony.

Courts have allowed experts to testify regarding the process of sexual grooming. Further, their testimony also helps determine the defendant’s intent or the modus operandi. Prosecutors will submit testimony showing intent to commit a sexual offense and provide evidence of the sexual grooming to make his/her case. The expert’s testimony aims to substantiate a victim’s allegation, especially if the victim’s testimony is misleading, contradictory, or unclear.

The case of the United States v. Hitt is one case that relied on expert witness testimony.

Hitt was charged with attempting to entice a minor across state lines to engage in illicit sexual activity. Hitt took the minors to dinner, the movies, ice skating, and shopping, among other activities. The expert testified to the grooming process in relation to Hitt’s behavior.

Hitt stated the expert’s testimony was improperly admitted. From his perspective, the testimony was not necessary to determine whether his acts were consistent with an illicit purpose or were charitable.

The government argued that the expert’s testimony on sexual abusers' methods is testimony regarding the modus operandi. Therefore, the testimony was properly admitted.

The courts held that other courts allowed expert testimony to explain offenders' modus operandi. Thus, the court’s opinion that the expert witness’ submission on grooming by child abuse offenders was not an abuse of discretion.

Another landmark ruling allowing expert testimony as evidence of grooming was made in California in Light v. Martel. In this case, Light was accused of using particular behavior targeting young victims before the abuse. Light gave sweets to the young girls and entertained them with cartoons. Light’s pattern of contact was consistent with all his victims.

Expert testimony was submitted. However, it did not testify to Light’s particular behavior. The expert explained how general practices and behaviors are consistent and designed by child abusers to insidiously target their target victims. According to the expert, the behaviors include showing minors extra attention, gifting them, making promises, offering compliments, and increasing contact. Though these behaviors could seem innocent, they are grooming patterns consistent with child abusers.

The courts held that the expert's testimony was admissible. It was valuable and relevant in helping clarify complex patterns that seem innocuous to the jury, yet child abusers use the same behaviors.

Child Abuse in California

The growing focus on grooming originates from the need to protect children against sexual-based offenses, including child molestation and abuse. The prosecution introduces sexual grooming to establish a pattern of behavior leading up to the sexual assault or abuse of the child.

A similar approach was used in Ghislain Maxwell's case, where she was found guilty of conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse minors. In that case, Maxwell was accused of using grooming behaviors that made the victims vulnerable and susceptible to sexual abuse by Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the offense.

In California, the prosecution will use sexual grooming to substantiate child molestation or child abuse allegations. These two offenses utilize sexual grooming to prove a defendant’s guilt. Defendants face varying prison sentences and fines depending on the circumstances of the case. A conviction could result in a minimum sentence of three years with the possibility of life in prison, depending on what the prosecution can prove—the more serious the circumstances, the more severe the punishment.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Whereas grooming is a concern since it precedes child abuse, sexual assault, or other sexual offenses, prosecutors still bear the burden of proof. The presumption of innocence is a pillar of the justice system. Prosecutors need to prove that a defendant’s actions amounted to grooming beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the Law Office of Sara L. Caplan, we firmly believe that no case is indefensible. Defendants have a right to challenge the prosecution’s case, and we are ready to stand in this position by offering legal aid. Contact our Los Angeles team today at 310-550-5877 for assistance.