“My husband and I just had our first (and hopefully last) encounter with grooming of our 13-year-old daughter, and it was so frightening and overwhelming. Thankfully, we were sitting right next to her when an older gentleman from our church (who has shown great interest in our daughter for several years now) called her cell phone. This man is also a ‘Santa’ during Christmas season and participates in our church choir. It was 9:30 on a Friday night and we were engaged in a family game night. My daughter’s phone kept ringing (which is very rare for a 13 year old) and she finally answered it worried that one of her friends was in trouble but concerned because she didn’t recognize the number. It was this man from church claiming she had ‘butt-dialed’ him. During the call he asked her about how her Christmas was and eventually told her that when he ‘saw such a pretty girl’s name come across his phone, his heart went pitter-patter.’
Based on the information we received attending the Parenting Safe Children (PSC) workshop, my husband and I obviously had many alarm bells going off. We have raised our kids the Parenting Safe Children way. They knew about body-safety rules, we had many conversations about their ‘gut instincts’ and when something didn’t feel right, to tell one of us immediately. I thought all that education had wrapped a safety bubble around my kids. It hadn’t.
After hanging up, my daughter relayed the conversation to us. We gently explained that both the phone call and the things he said to her were very inappropriate for a grown man. We said things like, ‘Can you see either one of your grandpas ever calling a 13-year-old girl at 9:30 on a Friday night?’ Even though my daughter was uncomfortable with the phone conversation and she understood what we were saying to her, she said things like, ‘But he’s married!’ and ‘He’s a dad!’ (Upon further investigation, he was not a contact in her phone and she had no outgoing phone calls that entire day—she had not butt dialed anyone. He had called her on his own volition).
Even though we have raised our kids with information learned in the PSC workshop, both of our kids still had a hard time believing he had done something ‘wrong’ and that bad guys aren’t boogeyman, but can be friendly Santas in churches. We’ve had many more innocence-busting conversations with both of our children since this incident. We’ve let our son know this doesn’t only happen to girls, and that he needs to be careful too. We remind them to watch out for adults who seem ‘a little too nice,’ etc. I thought we had covered all of this in the years since we had taken the Parenting Safe Children workshop, but I just don’t think they were able to process it like we had hoped.
We went immediately to the head of our church and reported the incident. I also confronted the man personally at church the next time I saw him and told him how uncomfortable his call made all of us. I told him to please leave my daughter alone (my husband was hoping to do that part together, but he was out of town and I didn’t want any more time passing before speaking up — I had already experienced too many sleepless nights). That confrontation left me feeling sick because he maintained his ‘butt dial’ story, lying to my face, and essentially blaming my daughter for his call to her; at one point, he even said to me, ‘But she’s such a good girl…’
Three days later he quit our church choir (where he had met my daughter) and my church leadership sent him a letter asking him not to return to the church.
Thankfully, the worst of this was headed off at the pass. My daughter is safe. But this whole experience, while mild, left me so sickened and frustrated. Even with all of the knowledge learned in the Parenting Safe Children class, one of my overwhelming feelings was that I didn’t want him to be guilty. I didn’t want him to keep lying. I was almost begging for him to say something like, ‘Oh wow, I’m so sorry! You’re absolutely right, I should not have called your daughter at all; I should have called you instead.’ Or really anything other than what he did say. I can say with absolute certainty though, that the confrontation aspect is truly key. He acted caught, and then he left, and I am convinced he did that because of our confrontation. He had been an active choir participant and soloist at our church for years; the coincidence was just too great.
I want parents to understand that even though we feel like Mama and Papa Bears and KNOW that we will do anything to protect our children, this was not easy. I kept wanting this to just go away. I knew this person and on some level trusted him…he was a SANTA for Pete’s sake! Realizing the phone call was completely inappropriate and then telling our church leadership what had happened came easily to me. Looking at him in the face and the confrontation that followed, did not. Nor did the follow up conversations with the church and the steps they felt needed to be taken.
Depending upon your personality, you may have to push through a lot of discomfort to accomplish everything necessary to keep your kids safe. I was not anticipating this. You hear these stories and think, ‘Oh I would totally confront that guy if he had done that to my kid!’ And maybe you would, but maybe, you might also second guess yourself and/or the situation. I want parents to understand this and know they are experiencing normal feelings if this happens to them and it’s difficult. I learned that this whole situation is uncomfortable and while it may seem very clear cut, when living it in real life it felt like there was a lot of gray area. Maybe he didn’t realize what time it was when he called? He’s older, maybe he doesn’t realize what’s appropriate these days and what isn’t? My husband even said that if he hadn’t taken the Parenting Safe Children workshop, he’s not sure ANY flags would have been raised for him after the phone call. (Shocking!) I know this part of our story may seem crazy, but these thoughts do go through your head.
If you find yourself questioning the behavior of an adult you know and trust with your kids, know you aren’t alone; know you are doing the right thing to pursue things further…and know that while you know what you should do, it may be really hard. Tell those in your inner most circle that will have your back and support you. We did, and that was instrumental. Just when I would begin to question myself, one of my team would reach out to me and tell me they loved me or that I was doing the right thing. That was HUGE.
The tools you learn in Parenting Safe Children workshops WORK! I never, ever thought I would have to utilize any of the tools that I learned, but man, am I glad I had those tools when it mattered.”
From Feather: This is classic grooming behavior: Adult man calling a teen on the phone repeatedly, complimenting her name, making sexual comments (“pitter-patter”). And note how the child and parents were intuitively uncomfortable with the man’s attention, even if the child tried to dismiss the man’s actions.
This story illustrates something else important: If someone is grooming a child and they are confronted regarding inappropriate behavior, they often disappear (and move on to the next organization or child). Speaking up with the person of concern takes courage. You may feel guilt, question yourself, fear you got it wrong or wonder if you will falsely accuse someone, but speaking up is the right thing to do for the safety of all children. People who sexually abuse children want you to second guess yourself. Instead, listen to gut when you’re ‘feeling sick’ about an interaction and get support from family, friends, professionals to speak up. When your gut is speaking, you never have to have proof.
Feather Berkower, MSW, is Founder of Parenting Safe Children and a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Educator & Author