'Abducted in Plain Sight' - Grooming Behaviors

Author: Meg Fansler

Earlier this year, America was captivated by the Netflix release of the documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight. The documentary chronicles the 1970s story of Jan Broberg, a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped by her neighbor twice! A critical factor that allowed for the two-time kidnapping was the grooming tactics used by the offender. Grooming is a process by which offenders gradually draw victims into a sexual relationship and maintain that relationship in secrecy. In the documentary, the legal professionals who worked on the case and consulted on the documentary explain that child predators will destroy anything or person in the path between themselves and their intended victim. The offender must create a trusting bond with the child and their family so that they will be given access to the child. To do this, an offender utilizes grooming behaviors towards the child as well as their family and other close individuals. These behaviors lead to the manipulation of the child and their loved ones in order to gain and maintain trust, so the offender is able to do what they please with the child. Grooming is carefully planned and it can take place over weeks, months or even years. Sadly, grooming is highly successful.

The offender in the documentary, Mr. Berchtold or B as he was known to Jan, was an active and well-liked member of the church and community in their small town in Idaho. His helpful and innocent façade allowed him to gain the trust of the public and to stay under the radar. As the Brobergs’ neighbor, B would often send fruit baskets to their home, offer to drive Jan and her siblings to events, and flatter Jan’s parents. These small favors began to positively impact the Broberg parents’ opinions of B, leading to sexual relationships between B and both Mr. and Mrs. Broberg. An interview with retired FBI Agent Peter Welsh revealed that these sexual relationships were unknown to him while he was working the case and he found out these details only through watching the documentary.

Eventually, special undivided attention began to be placed on Jan. B took Jan on special outings alone and even persuaded Jan and her parents that she needed a separate basement bedroom built for her, assisting in the construction of said bedroom. With the Brobergs’ trust, B was allowed to sleep in Jan’s bedroom, which led to the molestation of the girl. The first kidnapping followed where B convinced Jan that she was to have a child with him at the instruction from an alien planet. Jan was threatened with her family’s wellbeing and ordered not to disclose any details of this mission to them. Even after being rescued, the Brobergs continued to demonstrate trust in B, allowing Jan to continue a romantic relationship with him and flying her out to where he relocated. This second kidnapping occurred when B then enrolled her in a boarding school where she could remain isolated from her family and be kept safe for when he returned. Today, Jan has written a book with her mother, detailing the two kidnappings and speaks publicly about her ordeal. In 2005, B committed suicide, overdosing on medication and officially removing the reminder that connected Jan to the experience.

While the story portrayed in this documentary occurred before the explosion of the internet, now in this digital era, both, the list of grooming behaviors, as well as the victims these actions target, has expanded, no longer requiring an offender to personally know the child or physically be near them. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has focused research efforts on grooming behaviors in the online world. On their website, they list some common red flags that parents and children should be weary of in online interactions. These flags include when the other party participates in sexual conversation or role-play of sexual scenarios, asks for and/or exchanges sexually explicit photos, attempts to establish a friendship with the child through conversation of common interests or compliments, encourages a child to keep secrets from family members and friends, convinces the child that they are in a loving relationship as boyfriend or girlfriend, portrays a younger individual, or offers incentives, such as food, drugs, or transportation.

In addition to the red flags to which parents and children should be aware, it is also crucial to understand the certain behaviors the child may be participating in that increases their risk for targeting. Children may be putting themselves at risk if they input inaccurate birthdate information to access chatrooms and other sites that adults use, begin conversations with adults—potentially child sex offenders—and make deals to exchange sexually explicit content for items like drugs, gifts, or money, or send sexually explicit content of themselves to the other individual. Understanding sexual grooming and common sexual grooming behaviors can help prevent sexual abuse before it occurs.

Agencies like NCMEC are playing a vital role in the way society identifies grooming behaviors and supports victims of grooming behaviors. Resources and research are educating the public on signs for which the public should be on the lookout. NCMEC has provided a tip line for Internet users as well as service providers to report child sexual exploitation and grooming behaviors that may lead to such exploitation. They have also developed educational programs that educate children on safe and proper online behaviors. For those who have become victims of such behavior, support services are also available to victims and their families. With documentaries, like Abducted in Plain Sight, and the research and initiatives being done regarding child sexual exploitation by the legal system and related organizations, progress is certainly being made in the identification of grooming behaviors and, hopefully, reductions in child sexual exploitation will follow.

Ashleigh Diserio Consulting works with individuals and organizations, assisting them in gleaning insight into a person’s life, motivation, and past and future behavior, so certain areas of behavior can be understood with a high degree of accuracy. We provide services in the areas of criminal and intelligence investigations, management support, threat assessment, insider threat support, and education and training.