AMBER Alert: What is grooming, and what are the signs?

(Graphic: WKRN; Photos: TBI)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Investigators say the relationship between Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins was not a romance and that the teacher groomed the 15-year-old.

Child grooming is when an adult establishes an emotional connection with a child and sometimes the family, usually to gain some sort of sexual contact with the minor.

News 2 sat down with Rachel Irby who works for Unchained Movement, a nonprofit residential program for sex trafficking victims. She is also an advocate for the Thomas family.

While Irby doesn’t believe Elizabeth was a sex trafficking victim, she understands grooming and says those victims are typically groomed first.

PHOTOS: AMBER Alert for Elizabeth Thomas

Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas at a Walmart in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 15, 2017. (Courtesy: TBI)

According to Irby, the prime age for grooming is between the ages of 13 and 15.

“Age is automatically a vulnerability. Second of all, is there a history of abuse? Has there been a past history of abuse of any kind,” she said.

She added there are signs that parents and adults can keep an eye out for.

“If you see red flags the main thing is you have to act, you have to ask questions,” said Irby.

Those red flags can look different depending on the age of the victim.

“For young kids you would see, maybe it would be an adult that has a lot of fun things in their house, maybe they don’t have their own kids but yet they have a lot of kid kind of items – you know like arcade games and things like that that would make kids want to go over to their house,” she explained.

For teens Irby said the groomer will likely pretend to be a boyfriend or the only one that cares for the victim.

Elizabeth Thomas with darker hair (Courtesy: Jason Whatley, family attorney)

“[Then] the groomer will start to purposely create a wedge between the parents and the friends and the groomer themselves,” she said.

Irby said these were all signs of what Cummins, who was in an authority position as Elizabeth’s teacher, did to her.

“We have a man who is 50-years-old who gained the trust of a 15-year-old girl who was actually very vulnerable and he then he began this grooming process with her. It definitely shows that he was a predator and that he was grooming her to take her for his own pleasure. It’s horrible, but again it’s not an isolated incident. It happens every day, it happens every day”

Irby says education and awareness is key in protecting your child from becoming a victim.

Click here for more on the AMBER Alert for Elizabeth Thomas.