As a parent of elementary age children, I strive to teach them the real dangers and risks they face daily. The avoidance of physical harm of riding a bike without a helmet or reminders to wear a seatbelt are the easy lessons. The risks of sexual exploitation and human trafficking are much harder for me to address with my children, even with my 24 years of experience working in law enforcement.
According to the FBI, there were more than 421,000 National Crime Information Center (NCIC) entries for missing children in 2019. The danger is real, as evidenced by these staggering numbers and open cases.
Parents must strike the right balance of teaching children the harsh realities of the problem without scaring them and ending further constructive conversation. I found that with self-education, honesty and consistent communication, I have achieved an appropriate balance in reinforcing safety with my children.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, life has transformed. We have experienced shutdowns, work from home mandates and disruptions in routines on how we live and educate children. This disruption has caused isolation and depression in some households. One thing that has not changed during the pandemic is the ability of criminals to adapt and exploit these frustrations and turn them into vulnerabilities. Digital devices are everywhere and have helped communities and families stay connected. However, this digitally connected environment has created the unintended consequence of exposing children to grooming practices for sexual exploitation by predators.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought child predators into our living rooms. Risks to children for exploitation have increased with criminals shifting their tactics to on-line streaming services. The need for cyber and physical security measures has never been more important for children.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), there were 16.9 million reports made to its Cyber Tipline of suspected online child sexual abuse and exploitation in 2019. These reports surpassed 2 million by March 2020. The rise in complaints are partly a result of the increased use of social media and digital devices, providing more opportunity for exploitation.
Prior to my law enforcement career, I was a caseworker for inner-city foster children and the Director of a New York City homeless shelter for women and children. Many of these children were victims of abuse and others were in the high-risk population for exploitation. I learned many years before I became a parent that children are resilient. Children can process a great deal of information and are able to digest difficult messages when done with some careful planning. Personally, I have had great success by following some basic concepts and using some of the online national resources available.
Be honest with children when talking to them about the dangers they face. Explain the precautionary steps to avoid being a victim and what to do if ever in danger. Develop a plan with your child and discuss this emergency plan frequently.
Know the signs of child exploitation and abuse. Parents must educate themselves on these issues and know what signs to look for as potentially dangerous indicators.
Online Safety Knowledge
Advanced computer knowledge or experience is not a prerequisite to learning about online safety and ensuring safeguards are in place on all devices. There are countless resources and free guides available to help reduce exposure. Parents should consider the use of child protection apps. Criminals constantly adapt and so should you. Children are spending more time online with less parental or adult scrutiny during this pandemic. The increased online time combined with a determined child predator is a recipe for potential disaster. Good cyber hygiene and consistent cyber vigilance is needed to help keep children safe.
What will you do if your child goes missing and is a victim of a child exploitation scheme? Have you considered this type of incident in your preparedness planning? Do you have recent color photos available of your child? Do you know your child’s height and weight, blood-type, medicines and dosage requirements? Do you know who to call? Every parent needs to have a plan in the unfortunate event that you need to take immediate action to find your child.
Report any suspected incident of abuse immediately to your local law enforcement agency. Contact your local FBI field office or file a report with the NCMEC at 1-800-THE LOST or online at www.cybertipline.org. Most importantly, if you see or suspect something say something, and make the call.
There are both healthy and unhealthy ways in which parents can deal with these risks to their children. The preferred choice is where the parent takes a proactive role in teaching their child about the dangers and preventive steps they may take together to help mitigate these dangers. Ignoring the idea of the danger or thinking it could never happen to your child is not the right approach. Parents must remain vigilant to the signs and potential risk factors and always maintain an open line of communication with their children. Take advantage of some valuable national information to make certain that you share in the joy of watching your children grow and experience life. ◙
· National Center for Missing and Exploited Children-
· ADAM Program,
· “Essential Resources During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Join the Fight Against Sex and Labor Trafficking –
· “COVID-19 Resources, Services, and Support – Anti-Trafficking.” ACF,
· Kidpower Child Abuse and Bullying Prevention Resources for Schools | Kidpower International
About the Author Michael Breslin
Michael Breslin has more than two decades of experience in federal law enforcement and transnational financial and cybercrime investigations. He serves on the Cyber Investigations Advisory Board of the U.S Secret Service and is the Strategic Client Relations Director for Federal Law Enforcement at LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
Prior to joining LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Michael served as Deputy Assistant Director for the Office of Investigations for the Secret Service where he oversaw the planning and coordination of investigative responsibilities. Michael is also a Board Member for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.