Unraveling the stages of grooming

Human trafficking happens all over, in every community – even your own. Children are especially vulnerable. In order to protect the children within your community, you have to understand the way traffickers work. Although the abductions that we typically think about do happen on occasion (think the white van and baby snatching), they are not the most common way of being trafficked. Traffickers make their job easy by capturing victims with a grooming process.

What are the stages of grooming?

Stage 1: Targeting

Traffickers meet the victim. This can be online or in person. In person, the trafficker may just know this person (family member, etc.) Traffickers are increasingly meeting children online. They meet on online games, social media, homework sites – anywhere they know children will be. They also identify vulnerabilities.

Signs: A new friend, hangout out with new people, etc

Stage 2: Gaining trust

They gain trust of both the victim and the community around the victim such as parents, teachers, and other supportive adults. Online, they spend time with the child. They get to know them. They play games together or casually chat for weeks/months.

Signs: Spending more time with new people, spending more time on devices

Stage 3: Filling a need

  • The trafficker fills a need to make the victim dependent on them. 
  • Homeless youth are most vulnerable for trafficking as a means to survive.
  • Next are youth in the foster care. They seek long lasting relationships and bonds.
  • LGBTQ are at risk because they seek friends and acceptance.
  • Any child can become a victim of human trafficking.
  • Major events can leave children vulnerable including abuse, a big move, parental divorce, feeling insecure, mental illness, etc.
  • A trafficker will gladly meet any need if the child is vulnerable.

Signs: New gifts, talking about a new friend, bragging about having new things or money, new living situations, etc.

Stage 4: Isolation

The trafficker will begin to withdraw the victim from their support groups. They will demand more time and isolate victims from friends. If there is trouble within the parent/child relationship, they will work to exploit that. “Your parents don’t get you – I do.”

Signs: Depression/mental illness, always having to be somewhere, excessive time on devices, lashing out at friends/family, etc.

Stage 5: Desensitization/abuse

The trafficker may introduce drugs, alcohol, and/or pornography at this point. They set up the culture they expect for the victim. They may demand favors in return for the gifts given to them. The trafficker involves the victim in illegal activities such as shoplifting or underage drinking. They may take sexual videos/images.  Anything they can use as manipulation in the last stage.

Signs: Drug abuse, alcohol use, lack of sleep, bruises, inappropriate conduct, secretive, etc.

Stage 6: Maintain control

The trafficker maintains control by threats, violence, and other psychological manipulation.

If the need was strong enough, such as food or shelter, the trafficker only has to threaten taking that away.

If the victim did get involved with illegal activities, they will threaten to tell their parents/authorities. 

They can blackmail victims with video/images of them (also known as sextortion).

Signs: Major changes in demeanor, mental illness, fearfulness, rage towards others, severe withdrawal, fear of law enforcement, etc.

It could take months or years from the time a trafficker identifies a victim to when they are sold, and not every human trafficking case looks the same. 

Not all signs mean a child is being trafficked, and not all victims may display these signs.

If you suspect human trafficking, call law enforcement or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Another risk children of all backgrounds who have a device is sextortion.

What is sextortion?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines sextortion as

‘the practice of forcing someone to do something, particularly to perform sexual acts, by threatening to publish naked pictures of them or sexual information about them:’

Sextortion is a rising crime that is happening to our children. Using a similar grooming process, predators find children they meet in person or online and build a relationship with them.

After gaining their trust with friendship and filling needs, they will ask for photos. Many predators pretend to be children of similar ages. They may send revealing images of other children, under false pretenses that it is them. Over time, the predator will groom the child until he/she does send a compromising image/video.

They then threaten the child to send more. They may threaten them stating they will send it to their parents, pastor, teachers, or post it to their social media. They may threaten their lives or the lives of their family. This keeps the child feeling they cannot seek help.

The predator then controls them to send increasingly sexual content. They may have the child abuse younger children in images/videos. 

Signs of sextortion: Major change in behavior, hiding phone, missing messages from texts/apps, jumping in reaction to someone coming, new devices/cameras, etc.

If your child has been a victim of sextortion, call law enforcement or 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Explore our Resources page for more helpful ways to help keep your kids safe.