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The question everyone’s asking about the parents in ‘Leaving Neverland’

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson in 1987. (Dan Reed/HBO)

Of the many stunners in the new Michael Jackson documentary, “Leaving Neverland” on HBO, in which two men allege Jackson sexually abused them when they were boys, there’s this: Joy Robson explains that she and her family left their 7-year-old son, Wade, behind with Jackson while the rest of them went off to the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t until one of their first nights away that Robson panicked because she couldn’t reach Jackson or her son.

The immediate reaction by most parents watching: Who would ever leave a child alone with an adult they didn’t know? Where was that panic the minute they left their little boy behind with a grown man they barely knew? How did they continue on their trip for almost a week after that?

In other words, what were those parents thinking? It’s a question many people ask when hearing a child was sexually abused, whether by a priest, a family friend, a relative or a coach. Left alone with an adult. Taken away by a family friend.

This documentary focuses on two men, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, who allege they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as children. (Video: HBO)

Accusations of child molestation plagued Jackson in the latter part of his life. He denied wrongdoing and was never convicted, and his family has criticized this film as a public lynching. But the boys’ parents now believe the abuse happened. And their accusations touch on a broader issue: How do parents not know when their children are being abused? How is it this can be right in front of their faces, and they claim to not know?

A devastating and credible ‘Leaving Neverland’ will turn you off Michael Jackson for good

The fact is, in many cases, many abusers are grooming not just the child, but also his or her family.

Debra Borys is a clinical psychologist and was on the team that evaluated alleged victims of priest abuse in the Los Angeles Diocese. “We would hear repeatedly about how their parents had been ‘taken in’ by the priests,” she said.

It seems so unbelievable to so many of us. But there is a pattern to sexual abuse. The abusers steadily break down boundaries. They may have power over the family, or something the family needs or wants. They tell the family just what any parent wants to hear: He’s special. She’s got such talent, I can help her get to where she wants. As one of the mothers in the documentary said: “I didn’t want to get in the way.”

I think it’s fair to assume most parents know it’s their job, particularly with younger children, to get in the way. And yet.

Larry Nassar was the respected team doctor whose unusual methods would help propel a girl to Olympic gymnastics fame. (Some parents later realized they were in the room while their daughters were violated.) Jerry Sandusky? He provided such great opportunities for young boys who needed a father figure and a break. The list goes on. It’s so easy to spot the warning signs — in hindsight.

For both families in the documentary, the attention by the world’s biggest superstar was thrilling. He invited them to Neverland, he bought them toys, he stayed at the Safechuck family home as a way to get away from the groupies and media. Jimmy Safechuck’s mother, Stephanie, ended up feeling about him, she said, like she would another son. She did his laundry. She took care of him. She loved him. Now? “I didn’t protect my son. That will always, always haunt me. I had one job. I had one child,” she says. “And I f---ed up.”

So how do families get from meeting a person to letting a child sleep in that adult person’s room, away from parents? Or to spend a summer away with that person when they are still prepubescent?

“The kids become very attached,” Borys explained. “Then pedophiles are also very charming and able to win the trust of parents. It’s a very gradual process. . . . It’s a long, gradual breaking down of boundaries."

According to Safechuck, she told the singer no the first time he and Jimmy wanted to spend the night together. That no didn’t last. Piece by piece, the boundaries were chipped away.

Jessica Greenwald O’Brien, a psychologist and director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College, isn’t familiar with the particulars of the Jackson case but is familiar with the grooming process. Often, she said, it occurs both with the child and the surrounding adults. And it starts out, typically, in an innocent way. “It doesn’t start out in this ultimately most pernicious form,” she said. A sort of friendship is formed. This usually occurs with someone the family knows, someone the child trusts, or someone whom they think they can trust in the cultural context, like a coach, a priest. A rock star. “There’s this implicit trust, so they’re not on guard in the first place,” she said.

In addition, many times (but not all the time — victims can come from strong, loving, put-together families, she notes), the child is vulnerable in some way, “which makes preying on them more plausible,” she said. “They have a neediness. Whether that’s for love and affection, praise, opportunities or exposure to something, or to give them the coaching they need so badly because their goal is to be the best . . . this person can offer that exposure or opportunity.” In that case, the parent has a need as well: They want their child to attain a goal, get some exposure or have an opportunity. This person makes it seem like they can help the child get there.

“There is some reason, an illusion, that being with [the perpetrator] is good for the kids,” Greenwald O’Brien said.

When the abuse does begin, even if a parent asks a child whether something is wrong, many times a child can’t or won’t say. Sometimes, even if a parent suspects something is horribly wrong, they won’t say it themselves, or follow their instincts. This is because of shame (i.e.: “How could I not have done something about this?”) or because of a true suspension of disbelief. “The thought of that is so horrific. It’s so traumatic to even think of it; there is a lot of denial,” Borys said. And for parents and children, there’s “shame and embarrassment. They feel judgmental about themselves, and embarrassment because society has such a stigma of sexual violations.”

Essentially, the question of “How could they?” when looking at the parents of abused children comes down to this: It’s a slow boil. Just as a child is convinced there is nothing wrong, a parent is groomed to believe that this thing that is happening, sometimes right in front of them, just can’t be.

When Joy Robson, one of the mothers in the documentary, moved with her young son from Australia to be near Michael Jackson, her father asked her whether she’d lost her mind. At the time, she felt she was moving toward an opportunity. Today, she says: “That has stayed with me for 26 years. Because there are many times I look back and think, yes, I think I had.”

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Read more:

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‘Jury Acquits Jackson’: How the King of Pop’s child molestation trial was reported in 2005