The growing awareness of sexual abuse in the media has the public on high alert in all walks of life—a steady stream of investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct within religious communities, sport teams and franchises, civil service, and the workplace to name a few. It seems like every week the news cycle is dominated by another story in which a religious leader is denounced following allegations of sexual abuse against minor members of congregation. Investigations into United States Olympic teams have the parents of minor athletes with their ears to the ground, as the horror of Larry Nassar’s crimes continue to shake out in civil court. Leaders within these communities are educating themselves on how the power structure of these institutions leaves minors vulnerable and in many cases are depending on the services of independent private investigators to conduct unbiased, thorough investigations.
In cases where there are allegations of abuse, there is an immediate division between the survivor and the alleged predator. Many of the parties involved will immediately fall on one side or the other. Employers, colleagues, and public relations representatives in the alleged abuser’s life will begin a rash of character defenses, claiming that there’s no way an individual as friendly/respected/admired as them could be capable of such disgusting actions. Parents and loved ones in the survivor’s life will rally in support as they attempt to take on not just their abuser, but potentially an entire institution as well. All of the parties directly involved have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. Institutions that are suspicious of predatory behavior in their ranks often prefer to handle the investigation in-house, using their own investigators in the form of management, attorneys, or employees in another supervisory capacity to do the fact-finding. Not only can the qualifications of these individuals range across a spectrum of investigative prowess, but because they are employed by the employer of the abuser, they likely will have some sort of bias as an investigator. This is why it’s so important to hire an independent, third party private investigator from the onset of any allegations of abuse. Like any unimpeachable structure, the integrity starts at the foundation, with thorough fact-finding by an experienced, qualified investigator. Ethically, a private investigator’s only loyalty is to the truth, and without any stake in the outcome of an investigation, their findings can withstand a higher level of scrutiny than an investigator employed by the abuser’s corporation or institution.
The most qualified private investigators for sexual abuse investigations have a wide array of experiences in multiple areas of criminal justice. Unlike the resumes of corporation and institutional employees, they will have likely majored in an area of criminal justice, have worked law enforcement, have been retained by either the prosecution or defense to assist in a case, and have an intimate knowledge of criminal procedures and investigative methods. Independent private investigators have to be able to work multiple angles in an abuse investigation, vetting every statement by survivors and witnesses, as well as doing thorough fact-finding on the alleged abuser in the form of an extensive background check, with special focus on their work history and criminal record. This kind of comprehensive groundwork lays a strong foundation for any litigation that might take place following the solution of the investigation. And because the private investigator is an objective third-party, the case will have integrity in a court of law.
Another specialty of a seasoned private investigator is surveillance and undercover operations. An investigator who is able to move through a crowd completely unnoticed, melting into the background while they keep an eye on the subject. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking like you belong, and surveilling the subject from a short distance, or keeping a digital eye on the subject in the form of a camera or tracking device. Regardless, subjects behave most naturally when they do not know they are being watched. Hiding in plain sight, private investigators are able to document an abuser’s movements, correspondence, associates, and schedule to establish means and opportunity with regard to the allegations. Private investigators specializing in undercover operations have an advantage when interviewing witnesses and subjects, building a rapport that allows them to open up to the investigator. This form of subterfuge is often crucial in abuse investigations, particularly if the allegations have not yet become public knowledge. This time is valuable to an undercover operative, because when there are abuse allegations in an institution, there is often a circumventing culture of silence within it. Employees and associates are instructed not to speak to press or law enforcement regarding the allegations, there has not been need for any sort of legal gag order, and these potential witnesses will have their guard down. Private investigators and their field investigators can garner credible leads, leading to a more comprehensive, thorough investigation.
There have been many institutions, particularly in the Catholic faith, that have been accused of what has been characterized as a “cup and ball” routine in which supervisory entities will transfer employees or members of clergy accused of sexual abuse to remote branches of their network, often in different jurisdictions, to prevent law enforcement and investigators from doing their due-diligence. Private investigators are given an autonomy that is free from bureaucratic or jurisdictional chains. They can follow leads to track down multiple witnesses and can track an abuser’s movements—all across state lines.
Regardless of an alleged abuser’s reputation or status, allegations of abuse must always be handled with due-diligence and a sense of urgency. Corporations and institutions have it only in their own interest to eliminate potential predators in their ranks. The cost to retain a private investigator to conduct a thorough, objective investigation is a small fraction of the potential cost to these entities in the form of lawsuits that result from an investigation, usually on the part of survivors who were vindicated in their accounts of trauma and betrayal on behalf of mentors and leaders in their lives. Retaining the services of a qualified private investigator can go a long way to bringing predators to justice and preventing potential ruin of institutions that otherwise provide a great service for individuals in communities across America.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information, please visit our website.
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.
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.