By CRISTIN REECE
You see it in the headlines almost every day — another child victimized, abused and sexually exploited — and you hope to God it doesn’t happen to yours or any other child you know. But what can you do to protect those kids from becoming another statistic?
As another school year starts, law enforcement officials want to remind parents and other guardians of Palestine’s youth the importance of educating their families on the potential dangers of child predators, both in reality and online.
“Unfortunately, it’s all too common a reality,” Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor said. “It’s happened here with kids sending pictures of themselves to someone online — we’ve dealt with several incidents just recently.
“As a parent and as a member of law enforcement, no child under the age of 18 should be able to use the Internet without a parent’s supervision,” he added. “Too much access can be a very dangerous thing.”
According to a release published on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website, U.S. authorities last month arrested 255 suspected child predators and rescued 61 children in a five-week sweep which spanned nine countries. Of the children rescued, 22 were 9 years old or younger, and four were under the age of 3. Forty-two of the victims are girls and 19 are boys.
“We are in the midst of a very, very serious fight against child abusers and pornographers,” ICE Director John Morton said. “These 255 arrests are an important blow in the fight, but we need everyone’s help.”
Between May 28 and June 20, the agency made 244 arrests in the U.S. and 11 in Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. Four of the suspects were women and the other 251 were men. Sixty arrests were made in Florida.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency led the international operation, known as “Operation iGuardian,” to capture online sexual abusers and those who possess, produce or sell child pornography.
Of those who have been arrested, 20 have been charged with online sexual enticement of a minor, and 235 have been charged with possession, production or distribution of child porn, traveling with the intent to have sex with a minor, rape or other related offenses.
ICE suspects that there are at least 80 additional victims that may have been targeted.
“The sad truth is, there are many more child victims of sexual exploitation out there who have not yet been rescued and are still suffering,” John Ryan, chief executive of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told Reuters.
The agency warns child abusers continue to prowl social media sites to coerce minors into sending pornographic images through “guile, deceit and extortion.” This year, ICE has already arrested 1,674 child predators – a rate that is far surpassing previous years. The agency arrested 1,655 child predators in 2012, 1,335 in 2011 and 912 in 2010.
Currently, the website, missingchildren.com lists more than 150 missing children from the state of Texas, including former Palestine resident Michelle Richardson, missing since 1989.
Others have been reported missing from Cherokee, Smith, Henderson and Navarro counties. Some people included on the list have been missing since the early 1970s.
How does a parent impart the need for safety to their children, though, without scarring them or scaring them needlessly?
Dr. Rebecca Bailey, PhD, a leading family psychologist and therapist, founded Transitioning Families, a program designed to reunify families in distress.
“The words ‘stranger danger’ are somewhat out of vogue these days because what it connotes is someone that looks totally different, maybe the toothless people you see on TV as an abductor. You want kids to know that it’s not necessarily like that. In the Dugard case, it was a couple,” Dr. Bailey said during a recent episode of “Raising America with Kyra Phillips,” a news program on HLN*.
That is why she says it’s essential for parents to test their children.
“Part of developing critical thinking is to put kids in situations, scenarios, that are safe to teach them and to help them have the skills to deal with challenging situations,” she said.
Dr. Bailey recommends these tips, published at the website, www.hlntv.com, on how to educate kids on keeping safe:
• Set ground rules and boundaries. Your kids need to know what you expect. By setting clear boundaries with them, you kids will learn to set boundaries with others. Establish rules.
• Don’t be afraid to talk about it. You do not have to be an expert to talk about safety, abduction and other difficult topics with your kids. You can start by asking them what they know and what they think about any of these subjects. Encourage discussion. Empower them with knowledge.
• Don’t be surprised if kids know much more than you thought they did. Kids are barraged with information from all directions. We think we are protecting them by not talking about difficult subjects, but later we find out they knew all about it and never had the opportunity to process their thoughts about a scary subject.
• Know yourself. Attitudes and opinions have their place, but don’t forget, your kids pick up on those attitudes and attitudes become behaviors.
• Age appropriate information! Keep it simple. A 5-year-old is different from a 12-year-old. And 18-year-olds may think they know everything, but in reality they still need more time to grow. Some kids may seem to be very smart, but give them information that’s right for their age.
• Practice. Practice. Practice. You can lecture and threaten and make them promise, but the fact is kids might sometimes make a bad choice. Maybe they are just being polite, maybe they have difficulty assessing a situation, but often kids will get into a car when they shouldn’t or go with someone they don’t know. Repeated practice is a great way to teach.
• Teach awareness. Glance up and look around you. Teach kids to make a note of what’s going on! Teach them to be smart, wise and pay attention to their surroundings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Practice powers of observation with your kids. Quiz each other. Ask them what you had for breakfast yesterday. What was your child wearing this morning? With younger kids play “I Spy” and draw pictures of what being alert might look like while you talk about it. Practice being alert!
• Create a safe list. Involve your children in creating a list of trusted friends and family members and their contact information. These are people who they can count on.
• Speak up. YOU can make a difference. Teach your kids to speak up if someone is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable, from online bullying, harassment of any kind, inappropriate comments and touching them in a way they don’t like. Your child’s voice is important! If a friend is being harassed, or if they are worried about someone they know – teach them to speak up! They can make a difference.
• Love = strength. Show your kids you love them. Tell them often. Create an environment where love gives them power and strength.
In many cases, the danger comes from a “virtual” stranger
“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that pedophiles are everywhere online,” said Special Agent Greg Wing, who supervises a cyber squad in the FBI’s Chicago field office.
The FBI reports it is believed more than half a million pedophiles are online every day. The Bureau’s Innocent Images National Initiative is working to catch these child predators and to alert teens and parents about the dangers of the Internet — particularly when it comes to social networking sites and, increasingly, online gaming forums.
“The younger generation wants to express themselves, and they don’t realize how vulnerable it makes them,” Wing said.
There are basically two types of pedophiles on the Internet — those who seek face-to-face meetings with children and those who are content to anonymously collect and trade child pornography images.
Special Agent Wesley Tagtmeyer, a veteran cyber investigator who works undercover during online investigations, and other cyber investigators say a relatively new trend among pedophiles is to contact children through online gaming forums, some of which allow two-way voice and video communication.
Parents who might be vigilant about monitoring their children’s Internet activity often have no idea that online video gaming platforms can pose a threat.
“Parents need to talk to their children about these issues,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to keep computers in an open area of the house so they can be monitored. The same thing needs to be done with online gaming platforms.”
FBI Executive Assistant Director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch Shawn Henry offers these tips on keeping children safe on the Internet:
• Instruct your children to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online; never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or online service to people they do not personally know; never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name or telephone number; never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images; never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent or harassing; and that whatever they are told online may or may not be true.
• Parents should understand teens are not always honest about what they are doing online. Some will let their parents “friend” them on social networking sites, for example, and will then establish another space online that is hidden from their parents.
• Limit online time. Most children that fall victim to computer-sex offenders spend large amounts of time online, particularly in chat rooms. Children online are at the greatest risk during the evening hours. While offenders are online around the clock, most work during the day and spend their evenings online trying to locate and lure children or seeking pornography.
• Review what is on your child’s computer. If you don’t know how, ask a friend, coworker, relative, or other knowledgeable person. Pornography or any kind of sexual communication can be a warning sign. Monitor your child’s access to all types of live electronic communications (i.e., chat rooms, instant messages, Internet Relay Chat, etc.), and monitor your child’s e-mail. Computer-sex offenders almost always meet potential victims via chat rooms. After meeting a child online, they will continue to communicate electronically often via e-mail.
• Understand, even if your child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, that he/she is not at fault and is the victim. The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions.
If anyone suspects their child may be in contact with a predator online or may have been the victim of an online child predator, contact local or state law enforcement agencies, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1-800-843-5678, immediately.
* According to the broadcaster’s website, HLN and its digital platform, www.hlntv.com, are a part of the CNN Worldwide network, reaching more than 100 million households in the U.S. CNN Worldwide is a division of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a Time Warner Company.