Mention Internet crimes against children and most people think of adults luring children away from their homes, such as Archillis Boglosa of Royal Palm Beach, Fla., who lured a 13-year-old Cape Girardeau boy away from his home through an America Online chat room in January. Boglosa goes to trial next month in Cape Girardeau.
Long-distance crimes like that happen, said Sgt. Joe Laramie of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a statewide organization that has links to 45 similar task forces across the country. But most computer crimes against children are local, often perpetrated by people the children know. Sixty-six percent of cases involving child molestation or pornography originate at the local level, he said.
Laramie, who is a sergeant with the Glendale, Mo., police department, and several other speakers gave an all-day training session Friday to law enforcement officers and social service personnel who work with children. The session was sponsored by the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence and funded by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
People who prey on children -- and it's almost always men, Laramie said -- often use pornography to break down children's barriers.
"They use it as a grooming tool," he said. "They break down their defense mechanisms when they repeatedly show them pornography. They say, 'Look at all these people having sex and how happy they are.'"
Internet pornography can also be a means for them to blackmail their victims once they have established a relationship with them.
Soon their young victims have become desensitized to what they would normally think is distasteful and reach a point where it doesn't bother them to see it. They become easy prey for molesters who can convince them that if so many people are doing what they've seen, then it must not be wrong.
Laramie said statistics show that there is a link between child pornography and child molestation.
Internet crimes against children are growing every day, Laramie said, because so many people use e-mail and use Internet chat rooms. Laramie showed his audience how easy, and fast, it is to start with a name or a telephone number innocently posted on a chat board and learn a child's entire name, address, phone number, where he goes to school, and even get a map to his family's home.
Often local police departments don't have the training or the resources to go after these cases. Laramie said. That's why the ICAC Task Force was formed.
"We can share data and resources and investigative techniques," he said. "We can offer that to any agency in the state of Missouri, and show them there are resources and give them tips on how to better investigate these kinds of crimes."
The best way to protect children from Internet predators, Laramie said, is good parenting. Communication is the most important way to protect one's children. Laramie said that most parents would ask their children where they're going, who they're going out with and when they're going to be back. They'll ask who their child was talking to on the phone, but they are reluctant to ask who they're talking to online and what they talk about with their Internet contacts.
Laramie advises that parents not allow their children to have a computer in their room, but to keep the computer in a common area of the home where the screen is visible.
"I'm not talking about snooping," he said, "but I am a believer in communicating."
He also advises parents to encourage their children to choose a screen name or e-mail identity that does not identify them as a young boy or girl. He encourages young people not to give out their passwords or to provide any kind of personal information. That's how predators track children down, he said.
He said people often unwittingly provide information about themselves when they sign up for free items online, and they only invite further unwanted e-mail if they respond to it. Forwarding an e-mail message is a good way, he said, to put other people's addresses out there and make them susceptible to receiving pornographic e-mail.
"You will not go to hell if you don't forward that prayer," he said. "It gets your address book out there."
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