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The virtual world is the real world to our kids, and they need our protection
March 9, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
A couple weeks ago, I attended an online predator training hosted by the Altenheim Resource & Referral Center in Wheeling and presented by Joyce Britt of the Sexual Assault Help Center.
About 25 local counselors, educators, child protective workers and others attended the training, where we heard among other things, the story of Alicia, who was abducted and sexually tortured at age 13 by her online confidante, a 40-year-old computer programmer.
The message: Parents who are not tuned in to what is going on with their children in cyberspace are ignoring the world their children are living in. The virtual world is these kids' real world, and there are no police patrolling it. Unless parents take steps to protect their children, no one else is going to do it for them.
Take Alicia. She told her story on Enough Is Enough's "Internet Safety 101: Empowering Parents" DVD, clips of which were shown at the Wheeling seminar. Alicia befriended 14-year-old Christine in a chat room. The two became close friends and shared everything with each other. Eventually, Christine introduced Alicia to an older man online. This older man became Alicia's biggest fan. If she said she got a bad grade, he told her it wasn't fair. If her mom yelled at her, he said no one should treat her that way. Even when Alicia found out Christine was really another 42-year-old man, she continued her online relationships with both men. Alicia said: "Here was this person in this box who is always on your side, no matter what you say."
On New Year's Day 2002, the computer programmer and Alicia arranged to meet near her home. She sneaked out after supper. She started having second thoughts and was about to go home when he grabbed her from behind. He locked her in his basement where he kept her chained up, beat her, raped her and tortured her for four days. Using clues they found when the man broadcast videos of the abuse to his friends online, the FBI was able to track down the man and rescue Alicia. He is now serving a 45-year sentence.
Alicia's mom didn't know about her online friendships. She didn't know Alicia was being groomed by a monster who was driving a wedge between Alicia and her parents. Online predators constantly affirm the child's feelings and thoughts, and they slowly but surely begin to exploit the child's natural curiosity about sex. "Everybody wants to feel loved," said Alicia, "and these people online really make you feel that way."
The first mistake kids make is when they agree to "go private" in a chat room, experts say. A 25-year-old convicted online predator interviewed on the Enough Is Enough DVD said he targeted adolescents because they are more willing to be online without supervision. (12-14 are the prime ages.) After chatting with someone publicly he would ask him or her to "go private" in a chat room. He said he wasted no time on the ones who immediately said no way, you're nuts, forget it, etc. He moved on until he found someone willing. Once they went private, the slow seduction began. "Kids were very, very willing to send pictures of a sexual nature" to him, he said.
Britt said warning signs of a child who is in dangerous territory online include:
— conducting secretive online activities
— being obsessive about being online
— getting angry when they can't be online
— receiving phone calls and gifts from people parents don't know
— withdrawing from family and friends
— minimizing or closing the computer screen as soon as a parent enters a room
What can parents do? First, get educated. Enough Is Enough has a great "Rules 'N Tools" checklist on its website, www.enough.org. Other great resources include the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, www.missingkids.com; and Net Smartz, www.netsmartz.org.
Britt said an Ohio Valley woman called the Sexual Assault Help Center the other day concerned that a young female family member was posting provocative pictures online. When the caller approached the girl's mother, the mother said, "Oh no big deal. That's what they all do." Britt said that mother needs to be aware that posting such pictures is a red flag that needs to be taken seriously.
Alicia had these tips for parents:
— "Pay attention to your children's activities" and "stop trying to be their friend."
— "Put montiors and locks on your child's computer when they are really young, so the child grows with it." Install additional monitoring software when they are preteens — and they don't have to know about it. "You don't have to look at it every day ... but if your child disappears, you could have the road map to their location."
— "Your kids are curious about sex and they're going to look for answers, and someone online will tell them, they will show them."
In addition to Britt's presentation and the DVD clips, we also heard horrifying stories of child pornography cases from right here in Ohio County from Gail Kahle, an assistant Ohio County prosecutor who often deals with cases involving child sexual abuse and child pornography. More about his presentation next time.
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Alicia talks about her abduction on the DVD "Internet Safety 101: Empowering Parents."