The documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ aired in the UK last week and it made for very uncomfortable viewing. It centred on two, now grown men Wade Robson and James Safechuck who when they were children were drawn into Michael Jackson’s inner circle. They and their families spent long periods at his Neverland Ranch and fun park. The two men now allege that Jackson serially and systematically sexual abused them and others over a period of years.

At the core of this calm well balanced documentary are the descriptions the two gave of how Jackson gradually inveigled the boys and their families into his glamorous but oddly childlike world to such a degree that almost any questionable behaviour by him went unquestioned.

The documentary has caused a backlash from Michael Jackson fans who at the more reasonable end of the argument cite the fact that Jackson had a dysfunctional, exploitative upbringing and was robbed of a proper childhood and that he identified himself as a child throughout his adult life. At the other extreme a good deal of hatred and bile has been directed at Wade and Robson, with angry questions about why they chose now to come forward. Bolstered by allegations that they are simply looking to make money. There has even been a ‘#MJ Innocent’ campaign advertised on London buses. The ads have now been withdrawn.

The programme serves as a timely reminder about the insidious power of the process we’ve come to call ‘Grooming’.  Grooming is a prevalent feature of this documentary and provides a textbook example of the complex dynamics at work within; the individuals concerned, their families and society in general.  In fact it is quite astonishing how people, society, we, stood by and did not question.  That’s the thing with grooming: It is the close up conjuring trick of abuse. People see what they want to see.

Grooming is a powerful phenomenon that harnesses quite normal responses to things like kindness, appreciation, praise and reward. Once the process gets a grip on the target victim the more powerful drivers of attraction, dependency and even love kick in, placing that person entirely at the mercy of the perpetrator. Michael Jackson had almost limitless resources at his disposal to this end but the same process applies whether it is your own personal theme park or a bag of sweets that’s used as the enticement.

Of course most people who groom children and vulnerable people, usually for sexual purposes, do not have the wherewithal of a pop superstar but several points that emerged in the programme struck me as very relevant to our everyday work in mental health and safeguarding:

  • In the first instance; believe the alleged victim at the time they report the alleged abuse. There is footage of the boys when young adamantly denying Jackson behaved in anyway inappropriately with them. This is a common behaviour when someone is in the midst of a relationship where there is an extremely uneven power balance and the alleged victim is perhaps deriving great emotional and/or material benefit. The children in this case, would have had great difficulty in saying anything that would have upset the dream lifestyle that Michael Jackson was affording them and their parents and siblings.
  • The person doing the grooming is creating a safe social and physical environment for themselves where they can participate in an activity they know society and the law would not tolerate. This is usually sexual but it can be for financial or even psychological abuse. In this case Jackson was able to provide riches including buying a house for one of the families in order to gain their acceptance or, as it turns out, buy silence.
  • Routines and activities that are rewarding to the victim are a prevalent feature, particularly ones that isolate the individual from their families or social support. This is where the perpetrator gradually introduces inappropriate behaviours in such a way that the victim is unable to resist or challenge them.
  • A mind-set in the victim develops; that they are part of, if not wholly responsible for, the wrong-doing and that they must keep things secret. So even after they realise that they have been manipulated and abused there is a tendency not to talk about it or report it particularly at or near the time of the abuse. As with Safechuck and Robson it may take many years and the arrival at a point in life where they feel strong enough to deal with the issue before they can talk about it.

It appears that the most prevalent form of grooming at the moment is online via social media platforms where children are particularly vulnerable but techniques like those allegedly applied by Jackson have been seen in the organised gangs of men sexually exploiting children and young people in towns and cities in the UK. The process is the same and the general principles apply.

I was reminded of my involvement in the Yew Tree enquiry into the allegations about Jimmy Savile. At the time I worked in Leeds, Savile’s home town. In fact I used to pass his penthouse apartment everyday on my way to work. My part of the enquiry centred on two incidents at High Royds Hospital in 1989. That year-long investigation revealed many similarities; Savile like Jackson was an odd character, strange in appearance and manner yet allowed unchecked and unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults. Both these men were so adept at distorting the perceptions of those around them that they were virtually able to offend in plain sight.

Our role is not to be the people who only see what we want to see, particularly when presented with something unusual. If things seem odd, maybe they are. If children seem fine maybe they aren’t. And when someone reports this kind of thing many, many years later there is a reason for that and we should believe them.

Steve Wilcox, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Psychiatry-UK