Although children have been warned about "stranger danger," the creepy old guy in a van who lost his puppy, what about someone who is friendly to them over time via texting or social media?

That's called "grooming," a criminal felony. According to Cristen Seiders, Counseling Supervisor for Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center in Decatur, "grooming is the process by which an offender manipulates a child over time to gain their trust for the purpose of committing sexual abuse."

"The offender will use Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media to connect with children," Seiders said. "The offender will tell them how beautiful they are or that they will be there for them when no one else understands them. Their intent is to manipulate them and get them to meet for the purpose of sexual abuse."

Seiders said that grooming is now used in just about every sex abuse case.

'We think about the stranger off the street," Seiders said, "And they still do exist. But a child is less likely to speak to them. Ninety percent of the sexual abuse cases are people the child knows."

A child may consider someone they have met online, over time, as someone they know, a friend.

"The offenders build a relationship with them and then the child will engage with them and talk to them," Seiders said.

The goal for the offender is to get the child to meet with them, either for the offender's own personal interest or for human trafficking. In some cases, the offender will ask for explicit pictures of the child.

In Illinois in 2018, there were 296 cases of human trafficking and that was only the number of cases reported. Growing Strong has seen it in the 5-county area his organization serves: Macon, Shelby, Moultrie, Piatt, and Dewitt Counties.

"We work with human trafficking cases, as well," Seiders said. "It is a problem that is under-reported."

Asked what young people and their parents can do to recognize grooming, Seiders said: "I think the biggest thing is for parents to have open communication with their children, even daily, about their internet and cellphone use. A lot of this is going on when parents are not aware. The parents and the children don't recognize the red flags."

Red flags parents should recognize?

"The age of the person who children are communicating with," Seiders said. "Do they really know how old they are? Offenders will use false online profiles. Another question is, have you met this person before? Do you know them, personally, or just online?

"Another red flag is if they want the child to hang out somewhere. Does it sound safe? Is it in a group that the child knows or is it alone?"

Seiders said the key is open conversations with parents about what is healthy.

"Parents can't assume, 'I know what my kids are doing'," Seiders said. "If the parents are not talking with their children, be sure their children will be talking to someone else. The parents need to shape their views."

Seiders also said that peers can be very helpful to derail groomers.

"Peers, bystander intervention, is a great asset," Seiders said. "When a child gets a new contact online, the first person they tell about it is a friend. If that friend has had open communication with their own parents, they can warn their friend about online manipulation and dangers."

Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center saw 422 clients in 2018 alone. It had 255 new clients in 2018. Of their ongoing clients, 184 are under the age of 18. It had 101 new under-aged clients in 2018. Growing Strong provided counseling and advocacy to 30 clients from Shelby County over the last year.

Growing Strong Sexual Assault Center's mission is to provide counseling, therapy and support to victims of sexual assault (ages 4 & up) and their significant others. They are funded by federal and state grants, private donations and the United Way. For more information, visit the website http://www.growingstrongcenter.org, call (217) 428-0770, or email Executive Director Cathy Byers at cbyers@growingstrongcenter.org

John Curtis can be reached at john.curtis@shelbyvilledailyunion.com

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