September 1, 2022 - 2 comments

RED FLAGS

… can be indicators that there's a problem.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve experienced a serious ‘pause’ about a situation, or a person? This is a red flag and it could be an indicator that there is something not right. As parents, and community members, we should take notice of ‘red flag’ moments, instead of just ignoring them, because sometimes these ‘little things’ add up to reveal a much bigger picture. Reporting red flag behaviour could be the very thing that protects a child from danger.

Let’s take a moment to talk about red flags in regard to child safety by looking at what ‘grooming’ behaviour might look like.

NOTE: Grooming can happen face to face, or online. 

Recognising grooming behaviour is challenging. One of the difficulties, when it happens face to face, is that the groomer may actually be a well-known or well-liked person in the community. As a result, it’s easy for both the young person and the community, to trust them. “Even experts on the issue who have interviewed convicted child molesters remark on how ‘likable’ they appear.” (https://themamabeareffect.org/red-flags-of-child-predators

And, the groomer’s social influence skills make the child feel like no one would believe them anyway if they were to report what was happening. 

Take a read of this real-life story below that one of our ZOE team members experienced when she was younger. Thankfully she responded to the “red flags” as an indication that something wasn't right. 

“When I was a teenager, I moved to a little town in regional Victoria. I started working at a small cafe and quickly began connecting with customers and with the wider community. 

One customer who started coming in was an older man in his late sixties or early seventies - let’s call him “John”. He asked me about my story and how I came to move to this town and he quickly took a liking to me. I’ve always gotten on well with the elderly, and so I thought that this was totally innocent. In fact, his over-the-top and bubbly nature made me think of him as just a sweet and excitable old man, completely harmless. I actually thought to myself that he might have some mental illness.

John started frequenting the cafe. 

He would chat to the other girls who worked at the cafe, but it was clear that I was his “favourite”. He would always read a newspaper in the cafe, and I remember him calling over one of the other girls to ask them if they thought that the photo of a young girl in the newspaper looked like me. 

He began asking lots of questions. His behaviour and intrigue in me started to intensify. 

Rather than coming into the cafe during peak times, he started showing up at the cafe right on close. I’d be stacking the chairs out the front of the cafe, and he would pull up in his car. I remember him jumping out of his car and quickly rushing to help me bring the tables and chairs indoors, despite me telling him that I could do my job by myself. 

On another occasion, it was closing time and he was the last person left in the cafe. He came up to pay for his coffee and cake and then tried to give me some cash. He said it was to pay for my train ticket. I refused even though he was quite pushy about it.

I told my good friend, who used to work in the Australian Defence Force, about John and how he’d most recently started offering me money for the train.

My friend quickly understood that this was predatory behaviour and told me he thought that John was grooming me. At first, I came to John’s defence! He was just a quirky old man who wanted to help out the young, new girl in town. 

But John’s behaviour continued to confirm my friend’s suspicions, and I started to feel targeted and unsafe. John would continue to show up at the cafe to compliment me and talk with me. He’d continue to come to the cafe right on close when our chef had already left and it was just him and I. He asked me if I wanted a ride home, which confirmed that his behaviour was not normal and unsafe. On this occasion, I took down his number plate. 

I remember feeling scared when I was alone with him. I lived very close to the cafe, above a strip of shops, so I remember feeling worried that I would be an easy target to follow. 

My friend decided that he wanted to see John in action, and wanted to make a point to John that I was not some isolated and vulnerable young woman, but that I had older friends who were looking out for me. 

So, we agreed that the next time John showed up at the cafe, I would text my friend, and he would come over. 

John came over one afternoon for cake and coffee. He was his usual extroverted, bubbly, and theatrical self. He gave me his usual attention, that is until my friend and his mate walked in the door and hugged me. John’s demeanour completely changed within an instant. When I saw him turn from an outgoing, almost unhinged personality, to a man completely still who would not look up from his newspaper or acknowledge me, I knew that he was not to be trusted. He quickly paid for his food with another waitress and left without even so much as a glance in my direction.

Two other instances stood out to me. 

Once, on my day off, I was walking down the street when I realised that John and, who I assumed was his wife/partner, were walking in my direction. When we passed each other, John did not even look at me. How strange, I thought. If there was nothing sinister going on, John would have greeted me in the street and willingly introduced me to his partner. And yet he pretended that I was just a stranger walking past. 

The next instance still sends chills down my spine. I lived in a unit above a strip of shops, where I entered my door from downstairs, which was backing onto a side street carpark. One day I headed outside and I stood still in my tracks. One of the distinguishing features of John is that he would wear a very heavy and strong cologne. It was pungent. Even after he’d left the cafe, I would still be able to smell it. It was always strong, and it was a scent that I had never smelt before. When I went outside my house that day, that same strong and unusual cologne scent was lingering around. 

I’ll never know what John’s intentions were. However disturbing the experience was for me, I am thankful that I was able to learn a lot from it. 

I learnt about grooming behaviour. John had identified me, and perceived me, as vulnerable. He tried to gather information about my personal circumstances. He identified what he thought could be my needs, like money for public transport, and tried to make me take his money. He’d try to do my jobs for me, and would even offer to drive me home. He would do these things when I was alone.

But John never got to exploit me because I had a friend who called it out for what it was and came to my side. If it wasn’t for my friend, I think the wool would have remained over my eyes for a lot longer. My experience says to me that as a community, we need to be more aware of what grooming behaviour looks like and we need to be able to call it out.”

How to spot it! Grooming behaviour might look like:

  • Special attention, outings, and gifts 
  • Spending time alone with the child/young person to gain trust. More than 80% of sexual abuse cases occur in isolated, one-on-one situations (www.d2l.org)
  • Isolating the child/young person from others 
  • Meeting the child/young person’s unmet needs 
  • Filling needs and roles within the family e.g. a father figure, homework help
  • Gradually crossing physical boundaries, and becoming increasingly intimate/sexual 
  • Use of secrecy, blame, and threats to maintain control 
  • Sharing sexualised material
  • Discussion of sexual topics, including telling dirty jokes (https://helpingsurvivors.org/grooming-warning-signs/)

**Just remember, “The goal of talking and being informed about these grooming behaviors is to strengthen your intuition and help you be on alert.” (https://defendinnocence.org)

Action:

This week (National Child Protection Week) is all about the ways that we can all work together to build communities that support children and families. 

All adults can play a part by ‘tuning in’ to children in everyday situations about small worries; then they are much more likely to feel comfortable telling us if something big is wrong.

Talking with children about safety:

  • Support children to identify trusted adults (both within the family and outside) they can talk to, if they are worried, upset, or don’t feel safe. Make sure these adults know they are on your child’s list.
  • Remind children that they can talk to you or a trusted adult about anything, no matter how big or small their worry might be.
  • Talk to children about how they know when they feel safe or unsafe. Help them to listen to their early warning signs (how their body feels), and to trust their feelings and instincts.
  • Use everyday activities as opportunities for conversations (e.g. preparing meals and snacks, going for walks, playing, shopping). If children are used to having lots of communication, it can make it easier to talk when big or tricky issues come up.
  • Be open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety. This helps children to develop a ‘feelings vocabulary’.

National Child Protection Week is a great time to start conversations with children and families about feeling safe.  

Source: https://www.napcan.org.au/articles-for-use-in-newsletters/

Further Reading:

https://themamabeareffect.org/red-flags-of-child-predators/

https://helpingsurvivors.org/grooming-warning-signs/

https://theconversation.com/grooming-what-parents-should-know-and-what-schools-should-do-if-they-suspect-it-131993

https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/77769 School Employee Sexual Misconduct: Red Flag Grooming Behaviors by Perpetrators

https://www.d2l.org/the-red-flags-of-grooming-behavior/

https://www.d2l.org/education/5-steps/

https://www.ywca.org/wp-content/uploads/WWV-CSA-Fact-Sheet-Final.pdf

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdC2_Ejij_BxbNkHhzatEAw/videos

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/it-s-dark-sinister-and-no-one-wants-to-talk-about-it-but-we-must-tackle-child-sexual-exploitation-20220629-p5axok.html

May 21, 2022 - 1 comment.

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The Benefits
For me, the introduction to social media and blogging came about in the early 2000’s when I found myself at home with a baby, a toddler and a preschooler.

In my job, prior to having babies, I had used email and the internet but as this new parenting season unfolded, so too did new communication and sharing tools which enabled me to have connections with other mothers who, like me, found themselves now at home raising children.

I began sharing photos on Facebook, blogging about the funny stories, difficulties, sicknesses or milestones of my kids and, most importantly, established a community that, although not face-to-face, could support one another through the ups and downs. As a young parent, I now had this online place to ask questions, make suggestions and develop support through the stages of newborns, toddlers or even offer to encourage mothers going through the rollercoaster of postpartum emotions.

Moving overseas in early 2010, I began to take blogging a bit more seriously and used it as a tool for mass-communicating with the friends, family and the support network we’d left behind. It was a way of sharing what life was like in another country, the differences, the challenges and the beauty of a culture foreign to our own.

It probably wasn’t until a few years after we had moved that I had my first moment of wondering whether all this blogging (and photo sharing) really was beneficial to keep up with. By this stage, more people had begun following our journey through the blog; people who didn't know us personally. And the realisation that anything I posted about our family would “stay” forever in the virtual world became quite confronting. So I decided to ease up on the frequency of blogging, only doing updates every few months. I became a bit more vague with details too and tried to post less photos of our kids and more about the activity that we were a part of.

Facebook was still a way to communicate with “friends” though and I felt like I was pretty selective about who I would accept friend requests from etc. In reflection though, I think I was pretty typical of a "sharent" posting first day photos, anniversaries, birthdays, awards, holiday highlights, dress up days etc. In fact, because we didn’t take our photo albums overseas with us, when our kids needed photos of themselves for school projects, they worked out that they could ‘google’ their name and, almost every time, they could find what they needed on the internet.

On Facebook, I loved reading people’s positive comments towards our family and it felt nice to have a place where I could remain connected, especially with people who I only got to see once a year when we would travel home. I admit, it felt good when people would tell me that my kids were cute, that I looked nice, or how great the party I had planned turned out, until… it didn’t any more!

The Drawbacks
I started to realise that whilst it was convenient that my children could find photos of themselves online to download - other people could too. And as they got a bit older, even their friends had discovered this, and they would show my kids photos they had found of them online. It was mostly amusing but at the back of my mind I also began to feel a sense of uneasiness about it all.

It would be this one experience on an ordinary Sunday morning though, that changed the way I chose to share photos of my children going forward.

One week, my daughter was involved in an inter-school swimming competition. Swimming was something that she improved at quickly and she was rapidly growing in both her strength and competitiveness. After winning several individual and relay events, she proudly stood with her swimming team grinning and holding up the medals hung around her neck.

I was so proud of her - all that hard work she had put in - all those laps in training. We came home with a beautiful, triumphant photo of the moment and, of course, once posted on my Facebook page, the positive comments came flooding in.

It wasn’t until that weekend when we went to church that I realised what I had done. My daughter ran up to one of her favourite Sunday school leaders to tell them “her” big news… only to find that they weren’t excited... they weren’t surprised… and they didn’t even encourage her.

They just replied, “I know. I saw it on Facebook.”

The look on her face is one that I will never forget and I’m actually glad about that. I don’t want to. It was what I needed to make the necessary changes that have remained since that day onwards.

A couple of things happened that day. One was that I went and apologised to my daughter. I had taken her news and shared it without her permission. This is something that all my children have since communicated that they value being consulted about.

Since that day, I started asking permission to share their news or photos and I only share privately with certain people like their grandparents, aunties, uncles, close family friends etc. I also involve them when choosing which photo to share. Sometimes the photo I think is the best, they don’t like. And they ask me not to share that one.

On some occasions, they even ask me to permanently delete photos that I really like of them - that they don’t want kept - and that’s really hard! But I do it, out of respect.

Secondly I saw a part of myself revealed that day I didn’t really like. Why was I seeking the approval of others? What was it that I needed to figure out in my own heart so that I didn’t crave people telling me how good my kids were? Why was my self worth so tied up in what I shared?

I rarely post any photos nowadays but before I share anything, I always check my heart and intentions first and ask myself “why” I am posting this? And if it’s about me needing something back… I just won’t post it. But it’s also taken a lot of underlying pressure off me to feel a need to have the next “thing” ready to share or post. I am no longer looking for that “moment” or that “experience” to capture. I am actually just able to enjoy my family without having to think of what, or how, I am going to share our experiences, or wonder what people will think - and I like that.

The Uncertainties

These experiences are mine. There is no one way that is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for you and your family so please don’t feel judged or condemned. But I do think that as a parent (or a sharent) a little bit of self-reflection on this topic can go a long way. Here are three questions that we can ask ourselves.

  • Is it safe, or even ethical to publish something about someone who can’t, or doesn't, give their consent? *see link in the resources
  • Whose responsibility is it to protect my children from the dark side of social media and the internet? (And, unfortunately there is a dark side)
  • How am I exposing my kids to social media? Knowing that exposure can potentially have a significant impact on their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.

You may be undecided about your stance on this topic right now, and that’s ok. One thing I have really appreciated from my friends is their sensitivity and respect when posting photos that have our family in it. I have lots of friends who ask me, is it okay to post this? Do you mind if I tag you in this? And I think this is a great suggestion for all of us to check first with other parents before posting and sharing images that include other people’s children. Everyone has a different level of comfort and privacy on this topic.

Nowadays, I hear many discussions about how young people aren’t being responsible with their digital identities, but as parents I think we also have a responsibility when it comes to what information we publish about our children and the effect that our "sharenting" can have on them and their futures.

Why not start a conversation by asking your children how they feel about your posting and sharing habits?

More resources:
If You Didn’t ‘Sharent,’ Did You Even Parent?” is a five-minute film that addresses themes of parenting and privacy, and fulfills the dream of all kids to turn the tables on their parents and admonish them for their behavior. It profiles three young people, from ages 7-18, as they confront their mothers over their “sharenting” — the oversharing of content about them on social media, often without their permission.

Does sharing photos of your children on Facebook put them at risk? Every time you post about your child on social media you are helping to create for them a data-rich, enduring and potentially problematic online profile. Some experts suggest we should exercise more caution.

SHARENTING: CHILDREN’S PRIVACY IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA an in-depth legal analysis of the conflict inherent between a parent’s right to share online and a child’s interest in
privacy. It considers whether children have a legal or moral right to control their own digital footprint and discusses the unique and novel conflict at the heart of parental sharing in the digital age.

May 21, 2022 - 1 comment.

The Dark Side of Social Media

Did you know that online sexual abuse is the fastest growing major crime in the world?
On Thursday May 5th, ZOE Australia hosted a screening of the documentary, The Children in the Pictures with guest speaker Warren Bulmer, at The Classic Cinema in Elsternwick.

While many of us prefer not to focus on the "dark side" of social media, we can not ignore the fact that there is so much research and evidence outlining the risks for individuals, families and even whole communities. The Children in the Pictures is the type of documentary that every parent, carer, grandparent and teacher needs to watch. It is both eye-opening and confronting whilst being undeniably one of the most relevant and necessary awareness tools in the fight against online sexual abuse and exploitation.

Commissioner Katarina Carroll said the documentary highlights the commitment, dedication and global reputation of Argos and shines a light on what is the world’s fastest growing major crime,

“The cases covered in the film highlight the expertise of our investigators, along with Argos’ innovative investigative strategies that combined with international law enforcement collaboration, have resulted in the rescue of many children from abuse and offenders being brought to justice worldwide,” Commissioner Carroll said.

The film makers hope that this documentary encourages parents and caregivers to have important conversations with their children about online risks and how to navigate the internet safely.

More resources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNK0OZF73CE&t=6s eSafety for parents - Online grooming

https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/inside-the-police-task-force-that-has-rescued/13565644

https://www.afp.gov.au/news-media/media-releases/afp-warn-about-fast-growing-online-child-abuse-trend

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/07/australian-police-sting-brings-down-paedophile-forum-on-dark-web