Robert Lowery, Jr. National Instructor Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute:
During this unprecedented time the need for social distancing and isolation (stay at home orders) has changed our daily lives. While, for some, this is disruptive we also must be mindful that It has also changed the daily routines of our homebound children. While at home our kids are engaged in a variety of safe and supervised activities, such as home schooling, play activities, crafts, games, etc. A side-effect of social distancing is that they’re also temporarily physically isolated from many important influences in their lives, such as school and teachers, sports, community organizations, extended relatives, classmates and friends.
We know that this all provides them much more availability and “free-time” – unfortunately, those willing to harm our children know this too.
Children are especially vulnerable to victimization and we must be paying attention to the warning signs of sexual victimization and exploitation.
The FBI recently warned that currently there is an increased “on-line” presence by our kids and offenders are taking advantage of this situation by directly communicating with many of them. Offenders are using various internet chat rooms, on-line gaming platforms and all types of social media apps – bringing themselves right into our living rooms and into our children’s bedrooms. This obviously creates a heightened risk of sexual exploitation, coercion through sextortion, and even being lured for sexual victimization from the safety of their homes. https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/school-closings-due-to-covid-19-present-potential-for-increased-risk-of-child-exploitation
“Online sexual exploitation comes in many forms. Individuals may coerce
victims into providing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves, often
in compliance with offenders’ threats to post the images publicly or send the
images to victims’ friends and family,” according to the FBI press release.
Parents and caregivers must recognize their role as the “first line of defense” when it comes to protecting children and what steps they may take to identify the signs and how to appropriately and effectively intervene.
As such, the warning signs of those victimized by sexual exploitation may include:
- Emotional, angry and aggressive outbursts
- Changes in behavior – such as, becoming introverted or withdrawn. They may isolate themselves from everyone else in the home.
- Attempts to conceal or hides their on-line activity
- Having social media accounts you don’t know about.
- Spending excessive amounts of time on-line
- Threatening to runaway from home
- Suspicion of drug or alcohol abuse
- Lacking concerns for themselves; engaging in self-harming behaviors, including cutting and other high-risk activities
Tips for Protecting Children on-line
First, parents must reconcile themselves with the reality that “social media” and the internet is an everyday part of our lives and that of our children – in other words, “we must be prepared to parent in a social media culture.”
In the large part, the internet and social media is a wonderful part of our culture and in many respects has become a primary way in which we communicate. Like anything else there are those who use these advances for nefarious purposes — the most alarming and frightening, of course, is to harm our children.
Abstinence, or forbidding the use by children, while a logical sounding solution, is not often something that we can reasonably or realistically expect. Face it, our children know more about using these technologies than most of their parents. We should keep in mind that regardless of how hard we try to prevent them from using these advancements today’s children are innovative and creative and many will often find a way to get themselves on-line despite our wishes.
- Discuss with your children (of all ages) Internet safety and make them aware of the dangers posed by certain individuals who use chatrooms and social media for illicit purposes.
- Manage and monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep internet connected devices in a common room or area of the house in full view. Limit the use of cell phones and smart phones as they may also be used as a means of exploitation.
- Use your internet browser controls to filer inappropriate content (sexual, nudity, etc.)
- Consider installing mature content filtering software.
- Parents and caregivers should never assume that they know who is communicating with their children. Don’t be reluctant to ask questions.
- Talk to children about what type of information is appropriate to share and what is not.
- Make certain children understand that any image they share will permanently remain on the internet. Even if they share an image of themselves with a “trusted” friend – in most cases it will end up in many other hands and become widespread.
- Tell children to immediately report to them any inappropriate or sexually explicit conversations. Parents and caregivers should then immediately report to law enforcement.
For older children
- Keep communications open with your older children about the realities of the dangers posed by offenders using the internet and social media.
- A parent’s role is the “first line of defense” in the protection of your child. You must encourage them to report inappropriate conversations to you without being judgmental about the content of the conversations. Resist the inclination to blame your child. “Remember that there is only one villain in this story and its not your child.” We must keep in mind that they were brought into a conversation they normally would not have engaged in. These offenders are skilled at what they do, just like “con artists.”
- Report immediately to your local law enforcement agency.
- Contact your local FBI field office or submit a tip online at fbi.gov.
File a report with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or online at www.cybertipline.org.
Thoughts on on-line gaming.
Many offenders are contacting and “grooming” children through the various on-line gaming platforms.
For younger children, parents should control gaming internet access on the device.
- Review and approve all games before they are downloaded.
- Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and devices.
- Remind your child to be cautious about invitations from those they do not know to join gaming “chat rooms.” They need to immediately report any inappropriate conversations.
- Teach kids to protect their identity and not reveal personal information.
- They should know how to block another player who may be aggressive or inappropriate.
- Set controls and know if gaming devices post to another online platform.
- Kids also need to know people they meet on a gaming site are not their “friends” and may not be who they say they are.
Luring of children by offenders vs. Runaway children
As we know the various social media applications and internet chatrooms offer unrestricted access to children. The motivation of the offenders may vary, but the most common is sexual – either through victimization (direct contact), exploitation (child sex trafficking or sharing sexual images or videos) and in some instances to extort money from the child.
Offenders will generally either disguise their identities or present themselves as someone typically “non-threatening” or “legitimate” to the child, like taking on the persona of a child of similar age and gender. Or, in the case of a female child they may present themselves as a similar age male suggesting that they may have interest in them as a “girlfriend.” Others may suggest opportunities for the children to work as paid “models” or “escorts” to earn a “lucrative” income and create for themselves a path for a “much better and glamourous life.”
In many cases the initial goal is to lead or coerce the child into an inappropriate conversation of a sexual nature – something he or she may not normally engage in. Depending on the circumstances this commences the “grooming” process that may go on for hours, days, weeks or even months. Once the child participates in the conversation and it reaches a certain level the offender then threatens to reveal the content to their friends, families or post the information on the internet for all others to see. This then becomes a form of “blackmail” where the offender then demands additional sexual content – usually sexually explicit photographs (nudity, etc.), or video (recorded or live) of a sexual performance.
This common criminal practice led to the term “sextortion,” which is defined as:
“Sextortion,” is a new online exploitation crime directed towards children in which non-physical forms of coercion are used, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content from the child, engage in sex with the child, or obtain money from the child. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
In some egregious cases offenders will attempt to make direct physical contact with the child. They will either arrange to meet them or demand that the child leave their home. Offenders will travel, sometimes great distances, to either a pre-agreed upon location or even meet them right outside of their home. In past cases, witnesses reported seeing the child jump out of their bedroom window and run directly to the awaiting car.
Once contact is made the offender takes the child to a location where the physical sexual victimization occurs. The child will either return home or will remain with the offender for an extended period for additional victimization.
In some cases, the duration the child is away may have be relatively short, therefore parents or caregivers may not even be aware the child had even left or was “missing” (i.e. the child crawled out their bedroom window during the night, etc.). In these cases, the victimization may not be reported by the child — largely out of fear.
But, in other instances, when the child is discovered missing the incident may initially present itself to everyone (including law enforcement) as a “runaway.“ Obviously, this conclusion is based on the appearance of “voluntariness” on the part of the child (i.e. the voluntarily left home) and the lack of knowledge about the on-line “grooming” activity by the offender and the “sextortion.” Regardless, once this has been discovered the missing incident should no longer be treated as a “runaway,” instead they should be considered as high-risk cases of “child abduction, facilitated by technology” that calls for an escalated response and search.
The rate and prevalence of on-line luring has reached a level that consideration of the possibility of luring should be part of the “risk assessment” process by law enforcement when taking a report or investigating any runaway child or missing reports where reasons for the disappearance is not clear. Especially with older children, we should consider the possibility of an “on-line” component to all missing reports.
The on-line activity by children is not always readily apparent. The use of screennames, passwords on the various social applications make it difficult if not nearly impossible to retrieve useful information, even when the child’s device (smartphone, tablet or laptop) is available. The sophistication of available countermeasures (to hide content and conversations) using encryption and “anonymizers” can make the task of uncovering evidence of “grooming” or “sextortion” a difficult task. Law enforcement agencies have availability of resources for forensic evaluations, such as the various “Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces” but, this takes up very valuable time.
Generally, most parents will only have a limited knowledge of what social media applications are being used by their child and who they may be communicating. Typically, siblings and the child’s closest friends have the “best” knowledge about such activity. They are often a “goldmine” of information and may even know the screennames and passwords used by the child to access the application or even the screen names of the offenders.
Final thoughts on luring, grooming and sextortion
The dynamics of child abduction and the behaviors of criminal offenders have dramatically changed over the past few years. We see far fewer “stereotypical” abductions by sex offenders who violently grab our children from places like street corners, or on-their-way to or from school, or from public parks. Technological advancements, such as AMBER Alerts, the prevalence of cameras on streets and in public locations, the availability of smartphones (equipped with still cameras and video recorders), “license plate readers,” social media that allows law enforcement to engage the public immediately when an incident occurs, coupled with an aggressive and robust response when a child is taken can all be credited with the reduction in these disturbing cases.
This is good news, but we should face the reality that criminals are still out there wanting to harm our kids – in many cases they have simply changed the way they target and victimize kids. In other words, technology has been both a “blessing and curse” when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable.
Parents must keep open lines of communications with their children and they must insist that they come to them anytime they are engaged in an inappropriate conversation – even if the “get in too deep.” Parents must resist temptations to “blame the child.” Instead, they must recognize that they are victims and should be treated as such.
Offenders are depending on child victims remaining silent out of fear that parents, caregivers and others will blame and discipline them for “inappropriate behavior.” Offenders are “banking” on this and the child belief that if they don’t remain silent and obedient the contents of their conversations (along with their sexual images and videos) will be shared on-line.
There are many reasons children run away. Regardless of the reason, the reality of running away presents serious risks the child may not realize or understand. They may be impulsive or believe they would be better off leaving home. They don’t have the experience or judgment to always make a sound decision. If you have a child whose behavior is changing or who is becoming withdrawn, take some time and find out what is going on in his or her life. Children do not always disclose what they are uncomfortable talking about right away. They may not know how to reveal what’s troubling them, and they may be looking for the right time and circumstance to talk. Keeping the lines of communication open is vital.
- Angry or aggressive outbursts
- Becoming more introverted and withdrawn from family and friends
- Exhibiting depression or increased anxiety.
- Having trouble in school-poor grades, skipping class, behavior issues
- Being secretive about friends or activities
- Having social media accounts you don’t know about and spending excessive time online
- Being bullied
- Threatening to run away or staying away from home for extended time periods.
- Suspicion of drug or alcohol abuse
- Possessing money or expensive items; lying and stealing
- Lacking concern for themselves; engaging in self harming behaviors, including cutting and high-risk sexual behaviors
- Questioning their sexual identity
What a parent should do if your child exhibits any of these indicators
- Talk to them and see if he or she will tell you what’s bothering them.
- Be honest about changing family dynamics like divorce, financial difficulties, loss of a parent/family member, or a disruptive family environment.
- Instead of lecturing, listen and make every effort to help your child come up with a resolution together. Try not to be judgmental.
- Be supportive, and let your child know you love them and running away will not resolve the problem.
- Seek outside resources such as family counseling, therapy, or substance abuse treatment.
- Talk about the importance of protecting their identity both online and offline and selecting friends wisely.
- Get to know the people who are important to your child outside the family circle.
- Put realistic rules in place and openly discuss why they are important.
If your child runs away
- Contact law enforcement as soon as you determine your child is gone; there is NO waiting period to report a missing child.
- Provide as much information to law enforcement as you know-including clothing, recent photo, known friends/companions, last time and place you saw your child.
- Don’t hold back; the more information law enforcement has up front, the better.
- Make all wireless devices and technology available; they may hold valuable information.
- Provide all social media accounts/names and cell telephone numbers.
- Provide information about custody, including issues you may have had.
- Provide information about any changes in family dynamics, specifically behavior changes in your child.
- Let law enforcement know about anyone who might be new in your child’s life or may be providing unusual attention or interest in your child.
- Provide law enforcement with any contact you may have with your child, through phone, text, or in person.
- Be proactive and get the word out about your child through fliers and contacting places/people you know about.
- Stay in touch with law enforcement until your child returns and notify them when your child comes home.