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.
Divorce and child custody are polarizing topics in the United States. Divorce itself is an ugly business. Two people who stood in front of their friends and families and promised themselves to another now find themselves in a situation where the life they built together is over. Often it is a storm of heightened emotions, personal crises, mediation, negotiation, carping, and resentment. For many, children sit in the eye of the storm, helplessly witnessing the destruction of their family unit around them. As if this were not tumultuous enough, children often become silent pawns between two parents or caregivers who seek to hurt one another. When developing a strategy for navigating a custody situation, caregivers often do not consider the possibility of hiring a private investigator to help build a credible case for sole or partial custody.
Many couples who are on the brink of divorce, or already treading in the harsh current of proceedings, default to the advice of lawyers, the court system, and child services when it comes to issues of custody. There is a myriad of reasons for this, including a parent’s financial means, work schedule, health issues, and ignorance. What’s problematic about leaving issues of custody in the hands of lawyers and the courts is families in turmoil become files in a drawer. The decisions made on behalf of the legal system often rest on the review of a mountain of paperwork; courts relying on police reports, financial/asset summaries, psychological evaluations, et cetera. What’s on paper becomes the load bearing beam for any decision made regarding custody, because caregivers in conflict are both subject to scrutiny in their statements against the other.
Private investigators have a tool chest similar to that of law enforcement allowing them to document a subject’s movements, behavior, and treatment of their children—both prior to divorce proceedings and after. Members of law enforcement are often the most credible investigators in the eyes of the court. However, unless a criminal act is reported, such as domestic violence or child neglect, law enforcement has little to no involvement in custody cases. Parents without those tools at hand are left with little recourse. Any evidence they document themselves is subject to scrutiny by the courts and by opposing counsel as misrepresented, inaccurate, or downright false. In those cases, those parents trying to build a credible case against their co-parent or caregiver can be maligned as malicious by opposing counsel, and those details may prove to be to their detriment.
The number one advantage of hiring a private investigator to document a questionable parent’s behavior is their ability to move through any environment undetected. Despite the fact a study determined there was an excess of 78,000 private investigators employed in the United States alone in 2017, you’ll never see a good one in the field. Private investigators are trained to blend into the crowd and surveil inconspicuously in order to ensure the subject does not modify their behavior for the benefit of being watched. In addition to hiding in plain sight, part of maintaining success in their profession means staying up to date on the best available surveillance technology on the market in order to gather evidence for their cases. Things like cameras disguised as ink pens, or drones with quiet motors that will not be easily detected. Parents are on their very best behavior when in mediation or appearing before a judge, but private investigators can completely upset the current state of a custody case with evidence they uncover in the field. They can document things like abuse and neglect through photographs, video, audio recordings, witness testimony, and the same examination of vital documents that would be performed by the courts. Their training has equipped them to be on the lookout for things like substance dependency, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or gambling problems. They can also document the opposing caregiver’s living conditions, whether or not the child is clean and well-fed, and their emotional wellness while in the care of said person. What makes a private investigator a particularly valuable asset is they are an objective third-party. Even if they have in fact been paid by one party in a custody case, misrepresentation of facts on their part may mollify their client in the moment, but will ultimately hurt their integrity with future business. Due to this, private investigators can become unimpeachable witnesses to behavior they’ve seen on the part of the opposing side that would damage the child’s well-being.
Private investigators can take on child custody cases at many different levels, all of which can be beneficial to the parent who wishes to establish a case against another parent or caregiver who they perceive to have questionable integrity. As with any investigation, the sooner the process of documenting and gathering evidence starts, the stronger a foundation the parent will have when they present their case before a judge. Parents who are considering divorcing a co-parent or caregiver and intend to establish a pattern of unfitness should consult a private investigator right away. The subject is more likely to proceed as they would normally prior to news that their partner is taking them to court. While the subject may not suspect they are being legally surveilled during a divorce proceeding, they are aware of the fact that—at a minimum—their behavior and actions during that time will be taken under consideration by the courts. The time to start collecting evidence is before divorce papers are drawn up and served.
However, it’s no mystery circumstances may not allow for this. Events prompting divorce proceedings may be very sudden, allowing no time for a hyper-covert investigation on behalf of the client. Parents who are in abusive relationships may not have access to the financial resources for this kind of initiative. As such, many private investigators enter the case when divorce is already a reality and custody proceedings are in full swing. One of the major criticisms of the court system in custody cases is children are often defaulted to the custody of their mothers, leaving fit fathers or other caregivers with few options. In one such example, an investigator from Indianapolis, IN was hired to investigate the parental fitness of a mother fighting her ex-husband and his parents for custody of their eight-year-old daughter. The child was shuttled back and forth between her mother and father’s respective homes for a few months while family court proceedings moved at a glacial pace. The father became increasingly concerned about his daughter while she was in her mother’s custody, and hired a private investigator to find answers. The investigator uncovered the mother’s place of residence on the record was dilapidated, dirty, and not at all a suitable environment for a child. Additionally, the investigator found the mother’s new husband had a criminal record, regularly used drugs, and had questionable judgement when it came to things like social media interaction and encounters with law enforcement. This led to the father retaining full custody of his daughter, with the mother being allowed only supervised visits. This investigative strategy is a two-way street, meaning that a parent who has been falsely accused of abuse or neglect in order to limit access to their child can hire a private investigator to disprove these claims, document the proper living conditions for the child in question, and secure evidence of malicious intent on behalf of the caregiver making false allegations.
Children should never be used as chess pawns in a messy divorce. Ultimately, any child custody investigation should be about the child’s safety and well-being—not about which parent is righteous in their indignation. A private investigator’s expertise, testimony, and lack of bias can shine a crisp, contextual light on the muddied waters of a child custody case.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
- Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
- Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
- Walking Away
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
- Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
- Just scream
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
- Not alone
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
- No compromises
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
- No shortcuts
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
- Life-saving technology
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
- Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
- Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
- Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head.
- Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
- Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
- If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.
Every week there are new stories in the news about teenagers who have either run away or been kidnapped. When parents see these tragedies play out through media coverage, there’s usually one common thread running through their minds, “This could not happen to my child.” Despite statistics on the demographics most often affected by missing or runaway teens, no family is immune. Parents of a missing child or teen will most certainly have never found themselves in these frightful circumstances before and be at a loss for how to proceed. In addition to filing a report with police, the parents might also consider hiring a private investigator to conduct an independent, concurrent investigation. Finding missing teens is not always the speciality of an individual law enforcement agency, which means your child could fall through the cracks. Finding missing teens is not easy, especially when they do not want to be found. That’s why many families rely on the independent tenacity of private investigators to find their missing teens. Should you hire a private investigator to locate your missing or runaway child?
An Overwhelming Task
The Office of Justice Programs estimates the first 48 hours after your child goes missing are the most crucial in the timeline of any investigation. During these moments, your instinct might be to go find the child yourself or help conduct searches; however, as a parent or guardian of a missing child, your information is the most crucial. A 1982 congressional mandate requires law enforcement to immediately take a report following the disappearance of a child under the age of 18. However, recent reports estimate the excess of some 800,000 missing persons cases reported every year, 85-90% of those cases are individuals under the age of 18. What this statistic tells us is law enforcement, in most parts of the country, are overwhelmed by a caseload (with some departments averaging over 40 cases per investigator) leaving your missing child as a file amidst a stack of equally devastating missing child cases. As law enforcement agencies across the country remain stretched, missing child cases—especially ones where the child appears to have run away—are not always the first priority, as investigators attempt to perform a triage regarding which case requires their attention the most. Private investigators only average between three and four cases at any given time, meaning your child’s case will be at the top of their list of priorities. During the crucial FIRST 48 hours, having a private investigator treat your case as a priority can be the difference between acquiring invaluable information and losing a lead.
Constitutional Red Tape
One of the glowing advantages of hiring a private investigator to find your missing child or teen is the fact PIs possess far more autonomy than the average law enforcement officer or investigator. For instance, when a suspect has been identified, law enforcement often must secure a warrant for them to be tracked as the investigation unfolds. Paperwork and bureaucracy within the chain of command can cause the wheels of justice to turn slowly in regards to local or state law enforcement. Not only are PI’s not required to file this sort of paperwork, but they can also do so without the supervision of a governing law enforcement administration, so the case progression is not stalled for lack of warrant or administration approval.
The Binds of Jurisdiction
With a private investigator conducting an independent, concurrent investigation, there will never be any issues of jurisdiction when pursuing leads. Say your family lives in Indiana, but while on an out-of-state family vacation, your child goes missing in a crowd. As missing and abducted children across state or even international borders, local law enforcement exponentially lose power to follow leads maybe illuminating the child’s whereabouts. It is also not uncommon for two or more law enforcement agencies to enter a tug of war when it comes to who has jurisdiction over a particular case based on the specific circumstances. This can lead to the loss of leads or time as agencies hash out the details. Private investigators are never bound by jurisdictional bureaucracy. They can travel between states following the trail of a missing child, all without having to file any paperwork or obtain special permissions from superiors.
While law enforcement may have a wealth of experience and exclusive tools at their disposal, it’s important to remember that these civil servants are often overwhelmed with an immense case-load and can only do so much when it comes to the constitutional and jurisdictional boundaries they cannot cross. Private investigators have the expertise and similar tools of law enforcement, while also having the time to treat your case as a top priority.
Carie McMichael is the Communications and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, writing about investigative topics such as missing persons and corporate investigations. For more information on missing persons topics, please visit our website.
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.