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New documentaries spotlight parents of child sexual abuse

NEW YORK (AP) — The mothers of the two accusers in HBO's "Leaving Neverland" said they were lulled by Michael Jackson's forlorn demeanor and fairytale world when they allowed him to take their boys into his bed.

An aunt who introduced her underage niece to R. Kelly and suspects abuse said in the "Surviving R. Kelly" docuseries on Lifetime that she hoped he would propel the teen's music career. The parents of a 12-year-old girl kidnapped twice and abused over several years by a neighbor in Idaho called themselves "naive" in the Netflix documentary on the bizarre 1970s ordeal, "Abducted in Plain Sight."

The trio of high-profile films, in a long line of media fare focused on the subject, have generated intense scrutiny of the people who should matter most to kids: their parents. For those in these sad and painful documentaries, support and understanding have been abundant, but some viewers, likely many who know nothing of how sexual abusers groom their victims, can't fathom how any parent could allow a child to be placed in the intensely vulnerable situations depicted.

There were missed red flags. Mistakes made. There were professional ambitions, murky monetary payments and plenty of perks. And there was lots of regret once their children disclosed. Experts said that when young victims are groomed by perpetrators so, too, are their parents in a vast majority of cases.

"Somebody who's intent on sexually abusing a child does actually groom both a child and a caregiver," said Esther Deblinger-Sosland, co-director of the Child Abuse Research Education Service Institute at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.

"When an offender is really looking to target a child, they do look for a child that might be more vulnerable, from a family that they think they might be able to manipulate in some way," she said. Jackson, who died in 2009, was found not guilty in 2005 of charges alleging he had molested a boy. While acknowledging that he befriended numerous children, including some he invited into his bed, he denied molesting any. His two accusers in "Leaving Neverland" allege that they were 7 and 10 when the abuse began. Now in their 30s, they appear in the docuseries with their mothers.

Loyal Jackson relatives and fans object to the one-sided nature of the unsparing two-part documentary, which aired March 3-4. The R. Kelly series aired in January. By late February, Kelly had turned himself in on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse involving four victims, including at least three between the ages of 13 and 17. He denies the charges. A jury in 2008 acquitted Kelly of child pornography charges.

Two women currently live with Kelly in Chicago and say they are his girlfriends, including 21-year-old Azriel Clary. Both have said they are willingly by his side, but their parents remain unconvinced.

"I feel like I failed my daughter because I should have saw different signs," Clary's father, Angelo Clary, told Gayle King on "CBS This Morning." As for Jan Broberg Felt, the 56-year-old survivor from "Abducted in Plain Sight," the neighbor who sexually abused her died in an apparent suicide years later. During her teen years, he slowly drew both of her small-town, churchgoing parents into situations he knew they would be ashamed to reveal, including having sex with the mother and convincing the father to perform a sex act on him.

Shaming or condemning the parents of child victims is one of those things "offenders exactly want to happen," said Deblinger-Sosland and other experts. "They want the blame to be not on them." A majority of offenders are known to child victims and their families. When a child discloses sexual abuse, Deblinger-Sosland said, they often do so to their mothers. Years after that happened in the case of James Safechuck, one of the Jackson accusers, his mother, Stephanie Safechuck, looked back in "Leaving Neverland" on their years in the superstar's life:

"This was all so overwhelming, and like a fairytale, and I got lost in it. And I know my husband got lost in it, too." David Wolfe of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University in London, Ontario, said that whether parents of victims are dealing with a trusted coach, priest or neighbor, they often are making decisions as abuse plays out based on non-threatening interactions with a perpetrator.

Robin Gurwitch, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, is an expert in understanding and supporting children after trauma and disasters. In the case of high-profile child sexual abuse perpetrators, the feeling of being singled out for special treatment makes parents vulnerable to missing warning signs that might seem obvious to others, she said.

"Parents are trusting of people who are important in their child's life."

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