Takeaways from Neverland, R. Kelly

Takeaways from Neverland, R. Kelly

It’s been difficult lately to avoid the documentary promos and media reports that detail allegations of sexual abuse of children and young teens, including by wealthy, powerful celebrities like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. Netflix has piled on with Abducted in Plain Sight, a series focusing on an Idaho family carefully groomed to deny signs of abuse of their child. And Michigan Radio recently aired the 8-part podcast Believed, which examines the abuse committed by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, including the missed and ignored red flags that allowed him to abuse hundreds of young girls over decades.

As difficult as these are to watch and hear, they each shed light on an insidious tool so many perpetrators use to abuse children: grooming.

Of the 4,888 clients we served last year, half were under 18. We see the traumatic effects of abuse every day in our offices. In the vast majority of these cases, victims — as well as families — were groomed to believe abuse was not happening, that everything happening was either normal, or a figment of the victim’s or family’s imagination.

People watch these documentaries, or hear about cases of abuse in our communities, and wonder how the children remained loyal and devoted to the abuser, how they could go back time and again following abuse without telling anyone. Many parents are confident their own child would tell them if abuse were happening.

It’s important to understand that typically, an offender tells a child no one can know about these acts. We talk about this at length in our book, he told me not to tell. Often, the child is made to understand they or those they love most will be in trouble or be hurt by any revelation. Kids by nature want to please adults, and they don’t want to get in trouble!

It’s also vital to be aware that children don’t have any context for understanding what sexual behavior or acts are. To them, this kind of touch may feel uncomfortable – or it might feel good. All they may know and believe is what the offender tells them. A perpetrator often will introduce touch gradually, escalating to inappropriate behavior. Kids don’t understand this as sexual, let alone abuse.

It often takes time and distance from the abuser for a survivor to recognize the behavior as abuse. Both survivors who were the subject of Leaving Neverland said they didn’t recognize abuse even as young adults. It wasn’t until they had their own children, they said, that they began to understand that their experience was abuse.

People paying attention to these cases may also wonder how loving, devoted parents didn’t recognize abuse was happening, despite some obvious signs in hindsight.

Offenders need to groom not only their victim, but also the victim’s family, in order to carry out abuse. They place themselves as a trusted ally to a parent in order to gain more information about the child’s behavior or other signs that the child may be about to disclose abuse.

And many offenders groom the community around them, positioning themselves as mentors, nice guys, or even superheroes to those they don't choose to abuse. To carry out abuse, an offender desperately needs everyone else to think they would be the last person on earth who could harm a child. A perpetrator is likely to strategically cultivate this persona and use it to build trusted relationships in the community in which they operate. That way, they can pull allies from among that pool of character witnesses if and when the truth approaches.

So what can families and those who care for children do?

First, talk to your child as consistently as you would about any other safety matter – bike helmets and swimming pools. Tell your child they are allowed to say NO if anyone – even someone the child loves – touches them in a way that’s uncomfortable. (These kids have a message for you about having those conversations!).

Second, be alert for patterns of behavior that indicate grooming. A potential offender may be someone who:

  • Is exceptionally charming and/or helpful

  • Attempts to obtain immediate “insider” status with your child or family

  • Consistently prefers the company of children to adults

  • Tries to establish peer relationships with people much younger than themselves

  • Fails to honor clear boundaries set by parents

  • Roughhouses, wrestles or tickles children after being told to stop

If you think your child is being groomed, trust your gut. Calmly encourage your child to tell you about the time he or she spends with the person. It’s important to be calm – remember, a child may be operating with the misunderstanding that they will be in trouble if they tell. An emotional parent may inadvertently confirm that misunderstanding in your child’s mind. Be willing to stop all contact between your child and the potential abuser, even if it makes you the “bad guy.”

We’re here to help if you need more information or just want to bounce a situation off someone with decades of experience working with families and helping them heal after abuse. KCSARC’s 24-hour Resource Line is available every day at 1.888.99.VOICE.