Part 1 of a three-part series
By the time you finish talking to Noni Classen of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, as well as the police officers who run the child exploitation unit in Newfoundland, you might feel like taking a bath.
The images and language they describe seeing and reading — posted online by offenders trying to lure children over the Internet through social media — are disturbing and getting progressively worse.
Classen, director of education at the child protection centre in Winnipeg, said she has seen and heard it all when it comes to people using technology as a means to gain sexual access to children.
“What we are seeing more of is predators desensitizing kids in order to commit a contact offence,” said Classen.
With the ability to take pictures of themselves using iPads and smartphones, wherever they are, and the ability to chat face-to-face, gaining access to children is easier than ever before.
Classen describes an example of how an offender uses innocent requests to trick a young girl into performing acts in front of a camera, without causing any alarm bells to go off.
He then uses the images to extort and manipulate the child.
“Depending on the age, often they say, ‘Can you do the front splits for me really quick? Can you bend down and touch your toes? Can you get into your ballet suit and touch your toes? Can you put on your pajamas and do it in front of the webcam?’
“It starts out like that because that’s not alarming to kids. It’s alarming to parents, but the kids just see it as they want to see how flexible I am. But this desensitizes them into maybe taking their tights off to do the splits, or doing it in their underwear and the children don’t see the sexual nature of it,” she said.
It has been illegal to communicate with children under the age of 18 for a sexual purpose since 2002, but law enforcement agencies, especially the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit—Newfoundland and Labrador (CFSEU-NL) Internet child exploitation (ICE) unit, is seeing an increase in charges lately.
In this province, the ICE unit was formed five months ago, bringing investigators from the RNC and RCMP, specializing in child exploitation crimes across the province, under one umbrella group.
The province devoted $1 million to be shared in the effort to fight organized crime and child exploitation during the spring of 2013.
Law enforcement agencies and the child protection centre are constantly trying to develop new approaches, including educating children and parents, to catch online predators and prevent incidents of exploitation.
RNC Staff Sgt. Joe Gullage, RCMP Sgt. Darin MacDonald and RNC Const. Terry Follett are based out of ICE’s St. John’s office. During a recent interview, they said the provincial unit has 21 Internet luring investigations ongoing — several are before the courts at various stages of prosecution.
Some charges have been laid as a result of complaints from parents. Some involve undercover officers posing as young children on Facebook or in chat rooms, and even gaming.
“This past weekend, we received a file from a parent whose daughter was in a chat room and was contacted and befriended by this person who got her to send nude photos of herself,” said Follett.
Following an investigation, it was discovered the male was from the United States, so ICE sent the details of the investigation to the national ICE centre in Ottawa and it will handle the proceedings from there.
MacDonald said the geographic limitation associated with the Internet is one of the biggest challenges officers face when conducting luring investigations. He said the offender could say they’re in Canada or China when they’re in the United States or even St. John’s.
Offenders can actually be a next door neighbour or a stranger logging into a neighbour’s Internet service by sitting in his vehicle on the street with a laptop, says Gullage.
“We had one case where we were getting complaints of a suspicious vehicle in Mount Pearl, and when we checked it out this is what they were doing, accessing the Internet. So this causes difficulty, too. But like we say to people, no suspicious activity is too small to report. Call us — we’ll check it out,” said the 37-year police officer.
Another difficulty thrown into the technological loop is free WiFi in coffee shops, says Follett.
He said offenders can sit in any restaurant that offers the free service and conduct inappropriate activity, but when the IP address is located, police forces have no idea who it was.
“It could be anyone. There may be surveillance, and you can talk to staff, but how do you know who actually committed the offence at that time, in that place?” said Follett.
Gullage says one advantage of combining the ICE units in Newfoundland and Labrador is it allows better co-ordination of the activities of the officers and the resources which allow officers to do their jobs better.
It also provides access to ideas, services and programs from professionals who are trying to find ways to stop the new invasive crime of child luring.
“It’s something new to us. We’re disturbed by some of the stuff we’re seeing, but we’re a new unit and just getting into it and we’re not there yet,” said Gullage.
Every day, officers are becoming more in tune with what is happening across the province and the country regarding Internet crimes against children, he said.
“Our investigators work hard and do a good job. The increase of use in social media is a growing concern for us, but we continue to upgrade the qualifications of our members and educate the public. This is not only a law enforcement problem, it is in all facets of society, and we can’t do it alone,” Gullage said.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection operates Cybertip.ca, which is the country’s tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children.
As of March 31 , 2013, the tipline has responded to more than 84,000 child sexual exploitation reports.
The ICE unit in Newfoundland received three of the reports — one was forwarded to Alberta ICE as the suspect lived there; a second allegedly involved an adult male sending nude images to a teenage girl, which is still under investigation; and the third involves an 18-year-old woman who reported that when she was 14 she took a sexual video of herself and sent it to her boyfriend. That video was distributed four years later and ended up on an adult pornography site.
ICE contacted the website and had it removed. There was no indication who uploaded the video.
Tomorrow: Techniques questioned