The Key Warning Signs of Grooming and Sexual Manipulation

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

warning signs of grooming

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has painfully revealed, our most trusted institutions have at times mishandled some of the worst cases of child abuse imaginable.

It is becoming clear to us as a nation that the trust given by children and other vulnerable people to individuals in positions of power is boundless. And it is this trust that can become hijacked via the insidious tactics of grooming and sexual manipulation.

Standing outside of the abhorrent situation, we might ask – how on earth could this happen? Wouldn’t a sexual predator be immediately visible to an employer in a child-focused setting? However, grooming and sexual manipulation work in such a subtle way that even other adults close to the situation can be lulled into a false sense of security.

The new NSW legislation on Reportable Conduct has commendably included grooming as a distinct behaviour that must be reported in child care contexts. It is therefore essential that all child-related employers become aware of the warning signs of child grooming and sexual manipulation in the workplace.

Warning Sign 1: The special relationship

Grooming behaviour can manifest as the slow development of a special relationship between a worker and a particular child or children in care. This might involve the giving of privileges, compliments or treats that might be held back from other children. The child can develop a strong sense of trust and even enjoyment from this relationship, particularly if fun and friendship appear to be the key drivers. Such children might previously have been at the less-confident or lonely end of development, with the perpetrator appearing to have commendably ‘drawn out’ the child.

Warning Sign 2: Returning favours

Once a seemingly trust-based relationship is in place, the perpetrator of child abuse will often connect their special gifts and words with requests for touching and/or emotional favours from the child in return. At first this might not seem like an unpleasant or abusive situation in the mind of an innocent child – after all, they have identified this adult as a friend to be trusted. Observers might in fact see a child drawn to a particular carer quite intensely. It can be heartbreaking to think that this could be the middle stages of a targeted grooming strategy.

Warning Sign 3: The conflicted or ‘acting out’ child

When behaviours gradually move into sexual talk, touching or more overt acts, the perpetrator of child abuse can take a more sexually manipulative stance against the child. The child might resist the abuser, but can be manipulated into continuance of the inappropriate relationship through emotional blackmail. One of the earlier favours granted to the child such as gifts, treats or special games might be threatened or recalled. The child can then become anxious and in some cases will actively seek to appease the sexual abuser. Observers of the situation might see contradictory signs between the once-friendly employee and child. Behaviourally, the child could lash out at others or experience a regression in development.

Make knowledge your strength

Thankfully there is now so much research occurring around grooming behaviours and sexual manipulation in care settings. Further, Australian legislatures are slowly but determinedly developing laws to protect children and to enable the effective reporting of inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

Child sexual abuse tends to arise not from some caricature of an evil villain but in fact via a subtle conflation of grooming, manipulation, child vulnerability and institutional ‘blind spots’. Codes of conduct and training on professional boundaries are just some of the methods that can assist employers in combating the scourge of child sexual abuse by carers.

We actively investigate and advise upon issues within child-focused workplaces. In addition, we have handled grooming complaints between remote student teacher networks, top sporting organisers and athletes, elderly residents in a mixed care facility, bus drivers and passengers, disabled individuals and in-home carers. Every case requires skill, sensitivity and an unbiased examination of the evidence.

Join us in our enduring quest to make workplaces safe for all concerned - not just owners and workers, but for those precious Australian children who inherently trust the adults around them. We are proud to be presenting purpose-built training on Abuse in Care in coming months. Give us a call for further details.

Abuse by Carers - Defining a Sad Reality

Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, March 01, 2017

It is quite clear that employers in aged, disability and other care environments do their best to keep staff and clients safe, yet one dark phenomenon that can raise its ugly head in care contexts is abuse by carers. For many complex reasons, vulnerable people such as the aged, children, and disability clients, can be abused by the very people who are entrusted with their wellbeing.

‘Abuse’ is a broad term that has developed multiple sub-definitions in recent decades. We have seen the basic idea of physical abuse making room for more complex forms such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and disability abuse. As Australia has witnessed via the recent Royal Commission, child sexual abuse has a truly distressing history. 
When an allegation of abuse by a carer arises, investigating the abuse objectively becomes a number one priority. Reportable conduct legislation is now developing across all states and territories; it is essential to understand definitional issues as reportable incidents arise.

Physical acts and omissions

Assault is perhaps the most common of the physical offences experienced in care environments. Rough handling of a client or patient can occur in any number of scenarios such as moving, changing, bathing, providing medication/ injections and feeding. And omissions such as failing to provide food, warmth, medication or post-fall assistance can also amount to offences of neglect. We often see this neglect as a form of abuse of the disabled or elderly. Feeding and changing neglect can also occur as a form of child abuse in care environments. Establishing what is truly accidental versus what is indisputably abusive is a very difficult task indeed.

The question of intent is certainly difficult, and investigations of abuse must weigh the elements involved in defining reportable conduct. For example, what appears at first glance to be abuse might turn out to be an accident or one-off omission.

Sexual abuse and manipulation

It goes without saying that children are one of the most vulnerable subsets of society, particularly in care situations (whether due to disability or family circumstances). Children are also frequently the target of sexual abuse or its precursor, grooming.

In almost all occasions of longer-term sexual abuse, the perpetrator undertakes a grooming process, designed to obtain the trust of the intended victim.
These behaviours can include paying undue attention to one specific care client, engaging in keeping secrets, purchasing gifts or trying to establish independent communication channels.

Once the grooming has taken place, and the abuse has commenced, the child or adult care client may act out, which is demonstrated by either an overtly hostile relationship with the carer (such as avoiding them or engaging in public conflict with them) or an unnaturally close relationship, which may be based on an attempt by the client to appease or satisfy the abuser.
 
The above red flags, identified by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, must be understood by workplace investigators in order to ensure that the most vulnerable potential victims are best protected.

Non-physical abuse by carers

Due to changing values in both public and private settings, the term ‘abuse’ now has a wider and more complex scope. Psychological, financial, and emotional abuse at the hands of carers is now a real hazard across multiple industrial contexts.

Some paid and unpaid carers of the aged, older children and the disabled have been known to trick, steal and/or cajole financial benefit from their charges. This can of course provoke angry and emotional responses from all parties involved, not least of which can be outrage from loved ones. One difficulty that investigators face is gathering material from a shaken and, in some cases, infirm victim. It is essential that specialist investigative expertise be employed in such cases.

High evidentiary standards

In the criminal realm, the evidentiary standard is quite high in cases of alleged criminal assault and/ or neglect by carers. Up-to-date legal advice on these and related issues is essential if a reportable incident is suspected.

For many employers who are made aware of alleged abuse by a carer, it can be hard not to react swiftly against this individual. However, all parties are entitled to be heard in a fair and unbiased way.
For example, an unexplained injury might not signify abuse by a carer, but an undiagnosed medical condition.

The ‘culprit’ might be assumed to be a carer who sees the elderly, disabled or young client each and every day. Yet transitory people in carer environments such as cleaners, aides and kitchen staff must also be carefully vetted whenever allegations of abuse surface during a workplace investigation. Investigators must resist the temptation to draw inferences or assumptions throughout the investigation.

Understanding the way abusers work and the nature and pressures on carers are critical for investigators. Knowing how to define and classify behaviour is a crucial component of determinations over abuse allegations.
These details and advice on what evidence to collect, and how to evaluate evidence are all covered in our new Investigating Abuse in Care course. Positions are still available for courses in March and May 2017. Book now to secure a seat! 

Shades of Grey: Raunchy Material and the Lessons from Shea

Harriet Witchell - Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Lessons from Shea
Shades of Grey: Raunchy Material and the Lessons From Shea

In the recent costs hearing for Shea v EnergyAustralia Services Pty Ltd, Federal Court Justice Jessup helpfully took the opportunity to summarise the findings of Justice Dodds-Streeton regarding the original unfair dismissal proceedings. There, Ms Shea had unsuccessfully sought relief against alleged adverse action on the part of her employer. 

In a bad light

 Ms Shea’s accusations were substantial and relied upon various sources of information for purported corroboration. In his findings against the applicant, Justice Jessup spoke with evident disapproval regarding both the quality and the means of acquisition of Ms Shea’s evidence. Of particular note, sexually explicit text messages between two staff members had been retrieved forensically by Ms Shea as purported proof of sexual harassment in the workplace. His Honour stated that Ms Shea’s methods of obtaining both the phone and text messages ‘did not show her in a good light’, aligning with the substantive trial judgement as to the ‘irregular’ nature of the acquisition [57-58]. 

Unseemly acts 

But the inadmissibility of the texts – and the resultant forensic report – was not the only issue in question. Justice Jessup quoted with approval the original finding of Justice Dodds-Streeton – the text messages represented nothing more than ‘a private exchange between consenting adult sexual partners’ [quoted at 56]. Further, this private nature actually placed a duty of confidentiality upon any readers of the texts. 

Thus, not only was the material found to have been obtained abnormally, usage of the forensic report was both irrelevant to the workplace issue at hand, and malicious in nature. His Honour went even further in his disapproval, noting the ‘unseemly manner’ in which the phone was obtained, with a very obvious agenda in play to cause ‘embarrassment and humiliation’ to the other party [59]. 

Eyes on the court

In administrative proceedings, the rules of evidence don’t formally apply. So there is a sense in mediations, conciliations and reviews that parties can place it all on the table in order to find resolution. The idea here is that people can often experience a greater sense of procedural fairness in a less formal environment. Yet Shea reminds us of the considerable pitfalls that can occur in court proceedings when undetected irregularities have coloured earlier processes – inadvertently or otherwise. It is crucial that internal and external workplace investigators establish quality control mechanisms throughout all stages of information collection. Keeping any future court proceedings front of mind can assist investigators in overcoming the kinds of evidentiary taints that befell the applicant in Shea.   

Quality counts 

And where certain key material can only be collected in an unusual manner, corroboration of the information obtained can assist in enhancing overall quality and future admissibility. Potential evidence should be free of irregularity, irrelevance, confidentiality breaches and/or personal agendas. Certainly, administrative processes won’t require the stringent attention to rules of evidence that apply in court. Yet the ‘juiciest’ piece of information brought out at in an administrative forum might well become the trial stage’s most useless piece of scurrilous and ultimately inadmissible evidence. Worse – if found to be obtained for personal or ‘unseemly’ reasons, a hefty costs ruling is certainly a possibility for the parties involved.

Spotting the difference between flirtatious behaviour and criminal sexual conduct at work

Harriet Witchell - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What is “sexting”?

“Sexting”, (the creation, possession and transmission of sexually suggestive or explicit messages or images), is all the rage with seemingly even the most conservative of your employees potentially drawn into seductive messaging over their phones.

However, employers who employ young people may need to consider the potential criminal ramifications when they are handling sexual harassment complaints or managing inter employee relationships.

Across Australia, the general age of consent for sexual activity is 16 years old, in some circumstances, and in relation to child pornography, that age is 18.

Grooming, which could include “sexting”, is behaviour that might be viewed as just flirting between colleagues, but may actually mask predatory sexual activity that constitutes a serious risk to employers and young employees.

If you employ young people or children under the age of 18, or have children in your workplace, you might want to watch out for potential grooming behaviour or child pornography offenses, to keep these young people safe.

With the everyday use of mobile devices to communicate, and with ready access to photo apps, the temptation for young people to send off a suggestive image, seems too great for some.

However the definition of child pornography incorporates material that depicts a person who is, or appears to be, under 18 years old in any images of sexual organs, including breasts in a sexual pose or sexual activity.

An offence can also be committed, for example, if a 19-year-old texts an image of her naked breasts to her boyfriend, where the girl’s 16-year-old sister sits next to her.

The criminal law relating to “sexting” was reviewed in 2012 by the Victorian Law reform committee.

This review considered the application of recently introduced Commonwealth legislation into the use of carriage devices (phone and computers, tablets etc.) to send or possess child pornography.  Similar legislation exists in each state making it a crime to use a carriage device to send or possess pornographic images or for the purpose of grooming.

What is grooming?

Grooming is used to describe any behaviour used by an adult for the purpose of developing a sexual relationship or engaging in sexual acts with, or in the presence of a child, or other children.

Typical behaviour includes giving special gifts or paying undue attention to a child or young person. This behaviour doesn't need to happen whilst the two are in each other's company; Facebook, chat rooms and email all are fertile ground for flirtatious behaviour and the gentle introduction of sexual conversations – “sexting”.

If two young people are close in age, but straddle the adult/child legal definition with no special relationship, there may be less concern for such conduct where both parties appear to consent. But employers and parents should be aware of possible criminal and manipulative nature of this behaviour.

Where the age gap widens, where the adult repeats the behaviour with a number of children, or there is a special relationship at play, the conduct has serious criminal ramifications: the criminal charges of grooming can result in 15 years imprisonment!

How can grooming affect you?

If your workplace deals with children’s issues, you will be familiar with the issue of grooming, but have you considered that employees could be guilty of grooming other staff members, not just the children they are employed to look after?

Grooming can be committed by any adult against any person under the age of 16 years, 18 if there is a special relationship between the two such as teacher/ pupil, client/counselor, manager/trainee etc.

**In August this year, the NSW ombudsman updated the definitions of reportable conduct (conduct reportable to the Ombudsman where the offender is in child-related employment).