Advances in technology are constantly changing the dialogue about how we protect our children from potential predators. Over the last decade, parents have had to reform their strategy when it comes to protecting their child in the real world. Before, parents cautioned their kids on stranger danger, special code words, and remaining aware of their surroundings in public. In a new era of unfettered internet access through multiple smart devices, parents had to contend with the real world being brought into their homes, with predators targeting their children through social media. Now, it appears parents will yet again have to add some new pages to the playbook when it comes to protecting their children from predators on video game platforms with integrated social networking.
Parents with children between the ages of 12-25 will likely be familiar with the online first-person shooter video game known as Fortnite. In the game, 100 players at a time compete to be the last one standing in a battle-royale style of combat. The game features a chat feature allowing players to communicate in team efforts and other uses. It has great potential to foster team building and cooperation between young people, but also has a dark side recently illuminated by an arrest made in Florida in late January.
Authorities arrested 41-year-old, Anthony Thomas, a man who allegedly used Fortnite’s instant-messaging feature to groom over 20 minors, including a 17-year-old, with whom law enforcement allege he had a sexual relationship. The Florida Attorney General’s Office also stated Thomas has been charged with 22 counts of possession of child pornography, and other charges related to his unlawful sexual relationship with the minor. Investigators uncovered he groomed the minors by sending them gifts—including a cell phone so their communication could remain more private. Ashley Moody, Attorney General, remarked about the predation perpetrated, “This case is disturbing, not only because it involves child pornography, but also because a popular online game was used to communicate with the victim.”
Grooming is defined as “a process by which a child predator gains the trust of a victim by building a relationship with the child and then breaking down his or her defenses.” Once a predator has earned their trust, they begin exploitation. Minors who are groomed in the gaming community are particularly vulnerable because the predator may literally be on their team. Cooperative play between players fosters a healthy, “there’s no ‘I’ in TEAM,” mentality, but predators use this relationship to manipulate the minor.
One of a predator’s greatest weapons when grooming a minor online is pop culture. The predator—perhaps unlike the minor’s parents—shows their target they’re “hip and cool”, and are able to converse at their level about something they enjoy. This causes the minor to lower their guard, and the predator begins their manipulation game, culminating in the exploitation of said minor. Online gaming is becoming so ubiquitous predators have developed a way to sense when a minor’s gaming is suddenly being supervised. The moment a minor’s behavior changes—they stop responding to messages, or do so uncharacteristically—the predator can pick up on that and cease all communication before they’re caught.
Unfortunately, even if a parent is supervising the communication between their minor child and other players online, it doesn’t mean they cannot be groomed. In the grooming process, between the introduction and the beginning of the exploitation, predators often suggest moving their communications to a third-party app, like What’sApp or Snapchat. These are apps where communications disappear with ease, and a parent performing their due-diligence in supervising their child’s internet safety may not notice, or even know how to access. TeenSafe says it’s critical parents learn to recognize the signs of grooming in their minor child.
Signs of Grooming
- Your child wants to spend more time online or playing games on a console, but won’t tell you why.
- Your child does not want to discuss what he or she does online, or what websites he or she visits.
- You notice your child is using inappropriate language he or she would not have heard within your home or at school.
- When you walk in a room, your child quickly changes the computer screen, mutes the volume on their gaming console, or turns it off all together.
Fortnite and other games with similar messaging platforms have been on law enforcement’s radar for the last few years as the instances of these cases continues to grow. In August of 2018, Titania Jordan, a digital safety expert, appeared on The Doctors to provide parents with helpful tips—not just for supervising their children’s gaming—but also for establishing boundaries that can nip grooming in the bud.
- Do not allow minors to have computers, game consoles, or tablets in their room without supervision. Keeping these devices in common areas will increase visibility and deter predators from targeting them.
- Instruct your child to never reveal any personal information about themselves to people they’ve met online, especially very specific information, such as where they live or where they go to school.
- Create a culture of openness in your home where children feel comfortable coming to you if they feel uncomfortable about an interaction they’ve had online.
People of all ages play video games, but the vast majority of players are either minors or young adults, and parents often find themselves overwhelmed with the strange new world of online gaming. Titania Jordan reminded parents knowledge is power, recommending they verse themselves in the games their children play. This can only heighten your ability to detect when something is off. This means doing research online, and actively listening when your children describe normal gameplay behavior.
Having an internet connection in your home may feel like you’re inviting predators into your home. And true, there’s no time to supervise every single activity your child does online. This is why it’s so important to nurture an open line of communication between parent and child. Not only will parents be able to sense when something is amiss in their child’s online interactions, but a strong bond between parent and child makes it less likely that an online predator will be able to isolate the child emotionally and manipulate them for the purposes of exploitation.
With sexual assault allegations dominating recent news cycles, Americans are further developing their figurative picture of what it’s like for a survivor of sexual assault to come forward with allegations against their abuser. When a survivor comes forward, they are subjected to scrutiny, libel/slander, and fierce criticism from private citizens like themselves about how they should have handled the situation. Knowing that, it’s not incomprehensible that rage continues to fester in the communities affected by the Larry Nassar investigation and the USA Olympic Gymnastics organization’s glacial response time to allegations against him.
Nassar is currently in federal prison serving a 60-year sentence for possession of child pornography, which is a blip compared to the sentences he received from the judges in Ingham and Eaton County, both ranging from 40 years to as long as 175 years. More than 330 women and girls have come forward claiming to be a survivor of Nassar’s abuse. His sentence came after Nassar pled guilty to possession of child pornography and sexual misconduct with the young gymnasts he treated at the famous Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Sarah Jantzi was Maggie Nichols’ coach at the time—Maggie’s allegations of abuse against Nassar are considered some of the first in the string of gymnasts who came forward after the Nassar investigations became public. Jantzi reported her concerns about Nassar to USAG after she overheard Maggie and another gymnast discussing whether Nassar’s practices were considered “normal.”
Nassar treated Maggie for a knee injury, during which he insisted on examining her groin area. He did not wear gloves, and took pains to close the door and the blinds before beginning the examination. Jantzi also contacted Maggie’s mother, Gina Nichols, who told IndyStar, “It was nothing you’d expect in a million years. I mean, I’m sending my minor daughter the last four years, one week a month, down to the Ranch to train. So proud. She’s on the USA team. Working so hard. Our family making all these sacrifices. It’s just—you wouldn’t even think this is something that would have ever happened.”
USA Gymnastics officials waited a jaw-dropping 41 days to report Nassar to police after the first hearing regarding Jantzis concerns. It’s a bad look, and to make matters worse, the organization did not inform Michigan State, where Nassar also worked with young athletes until late summer in 2016. The notoriety of some of the survivors drew a great deal of media attention when the investigation became public, and while much of the country currently associates mention of the USAG with sexual abuse allegations, the reality is this culture of silence and abuse is not unique to the USA gymnastics team. Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and abuse victim who founded Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit organization working to address and prevent abuse told the Chicago Tribune, “We’re hearing all about gymnastics, but the problems in gymnastics are equally as prevalent in every other sport…I think people are starting to understand the complexity of this, and how this stays in the system…It stays in the system because of governance, because of the people in charge.”
Just this week, two divers for the USA Diving team have filed lawsuits against their former coach, John Wingfield, claiming his academy ignored complaints against a coach under his supervision, Johel Ramirez Suarez. The divers claim the organization had knowledge of Suarez’s alleged predation prior to Suarez sexually assaulting them both. Suarez was eventually arrested in Hamilton County, Indiana in November of 2017 and was subsequently charged with 32 felony counts of child sexual abuse, earning him a spot on the USA Diving teams banned list. Even after USAG had reported Larry Nassar to the FBI (13 months after the initial hearing), they still did add his name to that list.
In a review of documents and data pertaining to the organizations governing the sports, the Washington Post revealed since 1982, there have been over 290 coaches and officials affiliated with American Olympic sports who have been accused of sexual misconduct. That number covers 15 different Olympic sports, and includes both individuals who have been convicted of their crimes and individuals who have never had to answer for the allegations made against them. The figure averages out to one official being accused of sexual misconduct every six weeks for over 35 years. If the Nassar case tells us anything about how Olympic organizations might have typically responded to abuse allegations, it’s not a mystery how a culture of abuse and silence was cultivated as many attempts to investigate the abuse were swept under the proverbial AstroTurf.
Survivors like Aly Raisman have called out USA Gymnastics, claiming that they were more concerned about guaranteeing gold medals that protecting their young athletes. “I don’t think that they cared at all. I think at first it was to ‘get him away,’ Nassar away from the Olympians, but when it was about a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, or a 20-year-old in Michigan they didn’t care,” Raisman told the Indy Star. That much is apparent from emails between Nassar’s legal counsel and USAG officials, in which the Olympic organization clearly took part in the effort to conceal the Nassar investigation from athletes and from the public. Aly Raisman also told IndyStar that she received a text message from the former USA Gymnastics President, Steve Penny in July of 2017, advising her that the first priority was keeping the investigation “quiet and confidential.” It would have saved many survivors like Kaylee Lorincz a great deal of pain if the organization had made allegations against Nassar public. While under investigation, Nassar treated Lorincz twice after Sarah Jantzi notified USAG about her concerns. Lorincz says that she was abused both times by the sports medicine “celebrity,” and lamented, “It could have saved many more if they could have just stopped him in 2015. It makes me angry and upset because it could have prevented so much.”
At this time, it’s difficult to determine the motives of the USOC and how they reacted to allegations against Nassar and other officials who have been accused of sexual misconduct with athletes. Did they do so out of ignorance or apathy? Or was this a focused effort to erode investigations into these allegations all together? A recent Washington Post article called for law enforcement and state attorneys to open investigations into other USA Olympic teams and organizations. John Manly, an attorney who represents many survivors of Nassar’s abuse told the publication:
“The most amazing thing about this evolution is that no one has executed a search warrant on USA Gymnastics and no one has executed one on the USOC…If anyone deserves a search warrant given the evidence to date, it’s them. If you believe these Olympic gold medalists, then [USA Gymnastics] violated the reporting laws in Indiana. I mean, why haven’t you done something?”
FMLA fraud can devastate a company, but companies should protect the integrity of their investigations to protect themselves.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides working families balance to their lives when their circumstances take a turn. Whether it’s caring for new life in the household—such as a newborn or a foster child—or to care for an ailing relative, the 1993 act protects employees from being terminated from their jobs when they must take an extended absence for a specific set of reasons. However, abuses of FMLA are extremely common in the American workforce. While suspicions of FMLA abuse should be taken seriously by employers, companies must conduct thorough and unbiased investigations before terminating any employees. Businesses who do not follow protocol can open themselves up to expensive litigation.
In addition to protecting employees from termination during an extended leave, FMLA also requires their various insurance coverage remain in effect. This protection can be guaranteed for up to 12 weeks. According to the Department of Labor:
FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.
FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
- the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
- placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
- to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
- medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
The use of FMLA within these guidelines (with some exceptions) is designed to protect hard-working men and women from losing their jobs when their family suddenly requires their attention. Life can change so fast, and employees can rest easy knowing their jobs will be waiting for them when they are able to return in top-performing condition.
According to Charlie Plumb, an attorney who represents clients in all phases of management, abuse of this protection should be investigated, provided the employer has an “honest suspicion.” He goes on to say, “This honest suspicion standard is really intended to protect the employer against a claim they are interfering against FMLA leave and/or being retaliatory.”
A familiar scenario is one where an employee has been granted leave under FMLA for a serious illness or injury. The employer then happens to see posts from the employee on social media having fun out with friends, exercising, or driving. The employer might think, “If they’re well enough to do these things, they must be well enough to work.” While this might sound like an open and shut case from the employer’s point of view, Allen Smith of The Society of Human Resources Management, provides an example where this philosophy proved problematic:
“Joan Casciari, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said she handled a case that involved an employee who was put on FMLA leave for depression. The employer later discovered, through surveillance, she was doing Christmas shopping with her family and having a wonderful time. But her doctor confirmed “retail therapy” was consistent with her condition and the fact she could shop did not mean she did not require FMLA leave.”
Luckily for the employer in this anecdote, they did their due diligence and consulted a medical professional who could corroborate the circumstances of her FMLA qualifications. Some employers are far hastier. When employers do not conduct comprehensive and objective investigations into suspicious FMLA claims, they can open themselves up to lawsuits that can be devastatingly expensive and a public relations nightmare.
Vigilance of adherence to the guidelines of FMLA becomes manageable when Human Resource directors keep an eye out for certain patterns of behavior, such as absence patterns, especially when they coincide with non-work events (holidays or something personal that they may have mentioned in the past). Employers should also be suspicious of absences directly contradicting any medical certification in frequency or duration.
Once an employer has a reasonable suspicion of FMLA abuse, they should most certainly investigate. However, internal investigations into these kinds of abuses can be very messy for Human Resources and upper management. The aforementioned scenario involving “retail therapy” could have been a disaster if the company had not done their due diligence. Some employers are not so diligent.
Another scenario involving a maintenance worker at a nursing home and rehabilitation center panned out much differently. The employee in question noticed his superior was exhibiting a pattern of absence he found suspicious. He began reviewing surveillance footage to compare to his own personal log of her comings and goings in order to prove she was abusing company time. After discovering the independent investigation, the superior served a series of performance adjustments to the employee before terminating him. The termination came after the employee had submitted an FMLA request. The court found the dates of his termination tied in too closely with his request for FMLA, allowing the employee to take the case to trial.
Scenarios like these are why Human Resources and management should 1) be vigilant of FMLA abuse, and 2) conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation in order to ensure the company is protected from litigation. Many companies choose to handle investigations internally in order to minimize the amount of exposure. However, internal investigations spearheaded by current members of staff, will not only disrupt daily operations, but can also have negative effects like the case of the nursing home. The employee conducting his own investigation may have had honest suspicions of his superior’s misconduct, but he was certainly not a unbiased source to investigate.
Private investigators are probative routes often overlooked when a company has an internal investigation. There are many circumstances under which companies do not want to give up control over an internal investigation, and a private investigator is the definition of a third-party. However, the objectivity of a private investigator is the number one reason why companies should consider them as an option. The personal biases of the persons involved in the previous examples caused the investigation to go south. As an independent contractor, a private investigator’s only loyalty is to the truth. They are vital to ensuring an investigation is a transparent expedition for the truth. This goes a long way towards protecting a business from subsequent lawsuits or bad press.
When handling an investigation internally, employers are limited to what surveillance they can attain from their own equipment or social media. Private investigators are licensed to track individuals and photograph their activity in public. Persons who fraudulently claim to be out for injury can be photographed doing tasks directly contradicting their FMLA claim, like yardwork or lifting heavy groceries. In addition to tracking their public movements, private investigators may also conduct undercover operations in order to investigate any frauds. They are invaluable in this regard as they are not known to those within the company. Whether you’re looking for an FMLA weekender or an FMLA moonlighter, if someone has made a fraudulent FMLA claim, a private investigator is the most-equipped professional to prove or disprove the suspicion.
In a few short weeks, it will have been two months since five-year-old Lucas Hernandez was last seen in his Wichita home. The search following his disappearance has been frustrating and fruitless, as investigators involved with the case remain stymied, leaving friends, family, and even strangers on the internet to provide their own armchair detective theories about what happened to the missing boy.
Lucas was last seen on March 17th, 2018 in his bedroom in the home of his father, Johnathan Hernandez. On the day Lucas disappeared, Hernandez left him in the care of his stepmother, Emily Glass, 26.
According to police reports, Glass checked on Lucas at 3:00 PM in his room. She then took a shower and fell asleep. When she awoke to find Lucas missing, she called Wichita police to report his disappearance. at approximately 6:15 PM.
The investigation into Lucas’s disappearance led investigators to uncover an unrelated child-endangerment complaint filed against Glass the day before the five-year-old went missing. The complaint concerns Lucas and his one-year-old sister, claiming Glass “unlawfully, knowingly and unreasonably caused or permitted a one-year-old child to be placed in a station in which the child’s life, body or health may be endangered.” The charge regarding Lucas’s safety was eventually dropped.
Friends, neighbors, and even family close to the investigation have told both law enforcement and media outlets of their suspicions that Lucas and his sister were being abused, having cited photographs of bruises on Lucas’s body, and statements by Lucas to family that Glass had beaten him and dragged him across the floor. Despite pleas with an arraignment judge to lower her $50,000 bond, Glass still remains in jail.
Since details alleging child abuse have surfaced, Hernandez has responded with frustration, feeling that a discussion about the possibility of child abuse is distracting law enforcement from finding his son. He told KAKE-TV, “Now, if you want to bring that up later that’s fine. That’s a whole separate issue. I think it’s taking away from what’s happening and I don’t appreciate it. Not from my family, not from strangers. “When asked for some perspective about how this could have happened, Johnathan Hernandez told Brenda Carrasco of KWCH12 in Wichita, “I’ve been fully cooperative and I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me and I think anybody that knows me knows the kind of person I am or the kind of father I am. I think if they did, I don’t think they would ever say anything about me or my family.”
Jamie Orr, the boy’s biological mother, was involved in the original grid search for her son that spanned several local parks, desperate for confidential tips that might lead to her son’s safe return. However, her interactions in her personal relationships and social media have led both family and strangers alike to believe that she might know more about her son’s disappearance. Her ex-boyfriend, Robert Cook, has alleged in screenshots from text messages and posts on social media that Orr had a plan to kidnap her son and elope with Hernandez.
Unfortunately for those praying for Lucas’s safe return, the investigation has slowed to a crawl. Police officially closed the tip-line regarding the Hernandez case on March 12th. In addition to the investigation conducted by Wichita police, they have also given permission for a Texas-based search and recovery team known as Texas EquuSearch, to begin their own search as of March 2nd. The team has used the boats, ATVs, and sonar equipment at their disposal to assist in over 1700 missing person cases, including the high-profile disappearance of Natalee Holloway. The team’s founder, Tim Miller, empathizes with the missing boy’s parents, as his own daughter, Laura, was missing for seventeen months before her body was recovered many years ago. He told ABC News, “I remember every minute of that seventeen months—of the helplessness, the hopelessness, the loneliness, and I just made a promise to God that I’d never leave a family alone if there was anything I could do, and here we are.”
Lucas was born Dec. 3, 2012, has brown hair and brown eyes, is about 4 feet tall and weighs about 60 pounds. He was last seen wearing black sweats, white socks and a gray shirt with a bear on it. As the original tip line has been closed, investigators ask that anyone with information that might lead to Lucas’s safe return to call detectives at 316-268-4407 or Crime Stoppers at 316-267-2111.
What good is a child custody agreement if you’re unable to have it properly enforced? Everyone expects or at least hopes the agreement will be respected by both parties, but that isn’t always the case. When you suspect child custody agreement violations and potential abuse, you need to document them and keep records. That may sound like a lot, but here are tips to make keeping records a little easier.
The easiest way to document violations and abuse is by using the camera on your phone to take pictures. If you think you see bruises, cuts, or marks on your child then you should be taking pictures of them. Photographic evidence is some of the strongest evidence one can have.
Timestamps will tell you the date and time the picture was taken. By default most phones have timestamps on every picture they take, but make sure your’s does too. If it doesn’t have timestamps then go into the app store on your phone and find an app that does it. It won’t be hard.
Write down notes and details in a journal or notebook
The details are important in cases of child custody agreement violations and abuse. No matter how good your memory is, recording as much information as soon after it happens as possible will help in court. If you write about the events and pair them with the timestamped photographs it will bolster credibility.
Back-up your data
When are records useless? When they don’t exist. You must back-up all of your data and records. No one thinks it will happen to them, but one power surge and your hard drive is fried. One slip and your phone is shattered on the pavement. Backing-up your files requires little to no extra effort and can be automated on most devices.
If you’re taking pictures on an iPhone, make sure your saving the photos to iCloud. If something happens to your phone you’ll be able to download the photos to a new one or to a computer. On Android and iPhone you can plug your phone into your computer and back it up to the computer’s hard drive. Back-up your data at least once a week and anytime you’re saving something of particular importance.
Hire a private investigator
Proving violations of the agreement and abuse can be difficult. Depending on how often you get to see your child or the time you need to work each week, your ability to track everything your ex is doing might be limited. How can you prove your children are being taken places they’re not allowed to be at?
Private investigators have nothing but time for their clients and can document everything while keeping an eye on your children. If anything happens that violates your custody agreement then it will be documented. If there is abuse happening you will get the proof you need for court. PIs can be your eyes and ears and help you protect your children.
For Private Investigation Inquiry contact Thomas Lauth, Lauth Investigations 317-951-1100
David Schroeder, Blog Writer, Lauth Investigations International