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Protecting children: Identifying signs of a child being groomed for sexual abuse

SALT LAKE CITY — Special attention. Unearned extra credit. A chance in middle school to present a project with college students. Compliments.

When paired with hugging, touching her knee, comments about her body and appearance, and other behaviors, these acts were the signs that Jaime Heiner was being groomed for an illicit relationship by her ninth-grade science teacher at a Kaysville charter school.

Heiner learned to lie about the relationship with Stephen Niedzwiecki, 34, to her parents and others. It went undetected for two years. Now, she has advice for people who are in similar situations.

"If it doesn't look right, then it's not," she said.

Niedzwiecki will be sentenced in March for two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and two counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old, in connection to the sexual activity with Heiner that started when she was 15.

But his story is not unique. He is one of more than 20 teachers, coaches or other people in positions of trust over children to go through Utah's courts in the past five years in connection with some measure of sexual abuse of a child.

In most cases, the perpetrator is not a pedophile but engages in a pattern of grooming to satisfy emotional or sexual needs by gaining trust and blurring boundaries.

Heiner’s grooming took place through the school year: a special project in October, talking with her in his classroom while asking questions about her faith’s stance toward sexual matters, games of Frisbee golf, a comment in March about no longer viewing her as a student, requesting a list of requirements a guy needed to meet before a kiss.

“It happened slowly. I mean, I had no idea what was happening until it was too late. … He was my teacher. I never thought that he would hurt me,” said Heiner, who turns 18 this month.

He kissed her in April. When she was no longer his student, the abuse began. The Heiner family, members of the LDS Church, had been hosting Niedzwiecki in their home so he could learn about their faith from missionaries. A few months after the abuse started, he became a member of the church. He asked her parents for permission to date her. They declined. He told her parents he would never touch her, Heiner said, "and at that point he had already been abusing me for months."

A question of trust

Most sexual abuse occurs at the hands of a person the child knows and trusts, according to research from the American Psychological Association.

The association estimates that 60 percent of abusers are those the child knows but who are not related to the child. This includes teachers, baby sitters, neighbors and family friends. About 30 percent are family members. Only 10 percent of perpetrators are strangers.

"I didn’t ever see any of the grooming,” said Paula Jensen, a mother of four whose son was sexually abused.

In this case, it was the stepfather of her son's best friend.

Jensen described herself as a protective parent. She did not work when her kids were young and would sit outside when her son was playing.

Her son, Preston, was a good student and well-behaved.

He kept the memories of the abuse to himself, but the unresolved trauma began manifesting itself physically with stomach pain and bleeding. It turned into seizures between ages 21 and 28. Tests revealed that he did not have epilepsy; therapy sessions helped reveal the abuse.

The sexual abuse, which occurred during sleepovers, progressed in small steps, Preston Jensen said. It started with a touch or a rub, which seemed innocent coming from a trusted adult, and progressed to inappropriate touching and eventually to rape. It continued off and on between the ages of 8 and 13.

"It's something that we'll have to live with for the rest of our lives knowing that he went through horrible things as a little kid and that we weren't there to take that pain away," Paula Jensen said.

She sees now that Preston's constant worry for his parents' well-being and reluctance to spend much time with friends were symptoms of his abuse.

Her son said he did not come forward for fear of what could happen to his family.

"It's amazing what fear does to kids," Preston Jensen said.

He remembers looking out the window one time when his mom was an hour late in coming home. He began crying out of worry that the offender had delivered on his promise to harm his family.

Kenneth Burr, 65, is now serving 10 years in prison for his crimes against Preston. He had previously pleaded guilty to attempted sex abuse of a child in a separate case and was sentenced to three years' probation and 10 years on the sex offense registry.

Most people think that people who commit these crimes are pedophiles who are preying on or attracted to children, according to psychologist David Dodgion, director of Associated Clinical & Counseling in Salt Lake. Most of the time, offenders match a different profile.

Sexual abuse was the most common type of abuse investigated by the Division of Child and Family Services in the 2012 fiscal year. Sexual abuse made up 2,526 of the 9,359 abuse cases the agency investigated in Utah. Of these, about 1,840 were committed by a parent.

In addition to his general psychology practice, Dodgion conducts assessments on and provides therapy to those who have committed sexual offenses. He has seen two types of sex offenders in his 20 years of experience. Pedophiles make up the minority of these cases.

Pedophiles have a sexual preference for children, he said. In general, they target strangers, have multiple victims and threaten those they abuse.

“That’s a much more serious and concerning offender and someone who is more what you think of as kind of a pedophile or fixated pedophile," Dodgion said.

The type of perpetrators he sees more often commit what he refers to as "relationship-oriented" offenses.

While "there's no specific psychological profile for an abuser," many of them share similar characteristics, he said.

Common signs

Would-be abusers are often manipulative, have a sense of entitlement and feel the rules do not apply to them, he said. They are “not very successful in their adult relationships, not able to get their needs met in those relationships and that’s, I think, when they’re at risk to turn to children … to meet their emotional needs.

“And so those boundaries sort of begin to blur, you know, between professional and personal. … The individual turns to the child to begin to meet some of their emotional needs and that progresses into meeting their sexual needs," he said.

Some of these blurred boundaries include frequent text and Facebook messages, spending time with the child outside of a professional setting and granting special favors.

Additional signs of grooming involve an adult giving excessive attention or gifts to a child that are "unwarranted," according to Brian Allen, a clinical psychologist at Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Hospital.

Echoing Heiner, he also included "any of those kinds of things that kind of makes you just take notice and think that something just doesn't seem quite right."

It is important that parents discuss this topic with their children in calm, matter-of-fact tones, Allen said. This is so children know that their parents will be comfortable talking about abuse if it were to happen.

Some children do not know what qualifies as sexual abuse, Allen said, so parents need to define what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, especially with young children.

"The most important thing I would tell parents is to have an open line of communication, and that has to start with the parents, not with the child," he said.

Talk to your children

Dodgion said parents should talk to the child about the relationship, too. Like Heiner, some children may not understand that they are being victimized.

This is true with teenage boys, who often don't realize they did not have a choice in the relationship.

"There's a power differential. It's not a relationship between equals," he said.

One mother believes this is the case with her 17-year-old son, who she said had a relationship as a minor with his former teacher. The son will not admit the relationship to detectives because he thinks they are in love, she said.

She thinks that her 17-year-old was targeted because he was struggling socially.

“As a mother, I see what he’s gone through, and it’s really heartbreaking. It really is, because he is a victim and she is a predator. Even if he wasn’t tied down and made to have sex with her, he’s a victim emotionally,” she said.

The difference in power is an important point to make, according to Trina Taylor, executive director for Prevent Child Abuse Utah, a nonprofit organization working to use education and training to help stop child abuse.

"It's never a child's fault," Taylor said.

Prevent Child Abuse Utah trains and helps develop curriculum to teach children about what they call body safety.

This involves telling children that their body is just for them and that they can trust their "uh-oh" feeling when something does not seem right. They explain the difference between a good secret (birthday surprise, presents, etc.) and a bad secret (abuse) and help them identify trusted adults whom they can tell about abuse.

Parents who notice signs of grooming should bring up their concerns with the person of trust and set boundaries, which may help prevent the escalation of the relationship, Dodgion said.

"I don't know that the intent is always for the relationship to be a sexual one. Sometimes I think, certainly, that's the case, but I don't think that's necessarily always the case," he said.

Hope for adults, children

Dodgion emphasized that there are plenty of appropriate relationships between a child and a trusted adult.

Some people come in for treatment with Dodgion before they act out inappropriately, but that is not often the case. He has seen offenders rehabilitate successfully through treatment. A big part of their treatment comes through being accountable for their actions.

"Offenders absolutely can be rehabilitated and most of the time want to not reoffend and go down that path," Dodgion said.

There is also hope for those who have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted adult.

Preston Jensen returned to the offender's house as an adult and glanced through the basement window. As a child, he remembers wishing he could escape the abuse. As an adult, he has escaped. He has since faced the man in court and learned to be happy.

His seizures have stopped, he is working, living on his own and has shared his story with others in hopes of being what he needed as a child: a hero. His most recent efforts are in promoting HB286, a bill that would provide sexual assault awareness education for parents, teachers and students. That bill passed the House Thursday.

Heiner identifies herself as an author, speaker and survivor. She is developing a nonprofit organization called "I am." to help survivors of assault define who they really are. She wrote a statement for HB286 and attended its presentation to the Utah House of Representatives on Thursday.

Her healing came through therapy, working as an advocate and her religious beliefs. When she first cut ties with Niedzwiecki, he returned a box of belongings that included letters he'd written, a bracelet he had purchased with her with the word "taken" on it, and a journal that he kept that reminded him of her. She handed the box over to a detective as evidence for her case. She sees the box and its contents as symbolic.

"It's up to you what you do with that pile of stuff that's given to you. You can either hold onto it and you can let it define who you are or you can let it go and take your life back. And I that think it's important to define yourself how you want to be defined," Heiner said.

Parents can find tips for talking to their children about sexual abuse on The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's website.


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