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Through my lens…Child Preditors (Volume 1)

BY: WALT MERRELL

As a young prosecutor, I was called to an unusual scene involving a meth lab in Florala.  During their search, the Drug Task Force recovered a meth lab and five computers with a server, video cameras, and thousands of videos of grown men having sex with young children.

The men in the videos never revealed their faces, but some of the children were clearly identifiable. Of those we identified, we contacted local authorities in their home states and reported what we had discovered.  But, I spent years trying to identify one particular little girl… hoping to find her… hoping to save her. The memory of her face still haunts me to this day.  We never were able to identify her.

I am happy to report that the individual who owned that house, and all of the child pornography, was sentenced to the maximum sentence allowable under the law. To the best of my knowledge, he is still in prison today.

Unfortunately, the problem of pedophilia and child pornography is not something that has weakened in the last 20 years… Its severity has grown.

Forbes magazine recently published an article titled, “Snapchat has Become a Haven for Child Abuse”.  The article detailed how pedophiles use Snapchat and various other social media platforms to recruit and solicit pornographic self-imagery from immature teens and preteens.  This predatory phenomenon is a very real and present threat to the children of our communities… yes, even here in Covington County.  We receive reports of child molestation on an almost weekly basis.  We receive reports of child pornography with much the same frequency. Even in one of the best communities in all the land, we are not immune to the reality of child predators and child pornography.

This week, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Instagram shut down various social media outlets and websites for various reasons.  “Why“ those outlets and websites were shut down is not relevant to this discussion. What is relevant is that much like “The Six Million Dollar Man”, we now know they have the technology. They can shut it down – even if it means shutting down entire applications because the threat to our children is so grave.  We cannot, however, solely rely on big tech to protect our children. Parenting is still a matter that is best done in our homes.

What can you do to protect your child from these predators? Truthfully, the best way to completely protect your child is to prevent them from ever entering into the arena. I realize there is pressure in today’s society to give your child a phone at a very early age, but it is not always necessary.  My children did not receive their first phone until they were 15 years old, and a better parent would have held out longer.

Admittedly, I have allowed the older girls to have Instagram social media accounts because that seemed a reasonable compromise to me, but under no circumstances were they ever allowed to have Snapchat.  Instagram is not absolutely safe, but it is clearly the lesser of the evils.

Where to start?

Deactivate and delete your child’s Snapchat account.  It is better that they be upset with you for deleting a social media app than for them to make a horrible decision because they fall victim to a predator.  Snapchat is a pedophilia magnet.  Do not let your children play on that playground.

Know where your children are.   If your child left the house without permission or disappeared during the middle of the night out of a bedroom window, you would bring about serious consequences in the form of discipline, correct?  However, for too many parents, that rule of thumb disappears when it comes to phones and internet access. In a click or two, children can disappear to faraway places, some filled with Disney characters and others filled with wolves in sheep‘s clothing.  Knowing where they are should not be limited to what street they are playing on.

Know your children’s passwords.  If your child suggested that they were going to a friend’s house but refused to tell what friend or where, would you allow it? Certainly not! Why, then, do we allow children to roam internet and social media neighborhoods, secreted away by password protection, so we cannot see where they are? We should not.  If your child will not tell you their password, take their phone away.  Nothing should be secret on your child’s phone.  They are your child.

Monitor your child’s social media activity.  It is not enough to know their passwords. I routinely hear parents say, “I don’t want to spy on my children.”  Your children must have the understanding that a condition of them having a phone and/or any social media app is that you will have full access to everything they do.  Do you have full access to your child’s room? Do you have full access to their car? Sure, you do.  Their phone should be no different.

If our children are the sheep and the predators are the wolves, then we must be the sheepdog – not only on Main Street, but also on “mainstreet.com”.

Do not reward bad behavior because it is convenient for you. I routinely meet with parents who tell me that their daughter or son sent nude images from their phone to unknown persons. When I ask where the phone is, the response is usually, “the child has it.”  Knowing they have rewarded bad behavior, the parents instinctively try to explain to me how the child “needs” the phone and therefore, taking it away is not a viable option.

In most cases, the child does not “need” the phone.  Rather, it is a matter of convenience for the parent. Recognizing that our children do not “need” the phone empowers us to recognize that it is a privilege, not a necessity.  That privilege comes with conditions. If they do not meet those conditions, there must be consequences.  If they do not abide by your rules, take their phone away… and take it away for more than a day or two.

Internet predators are out there.  We prosecute them routinely. Prepare yourself to be a sheepdog, because the wolf only comes to steal, kill and destroy.

Fight the good fight.  Keep the faith.  Finish the Race.

Walt Merrell