Child protection advocates are once again calling for social media education and app awareness for parents, guardians and children after a 13-year-old girl who was missing for over a week and found alive in Oregon this weekend.
The Edmonton teenager was last seen on Friday, June 24, at around 8:30 a.m. in the area of 131 Avenue and 91 Street, which is next to Killarney Junior High School. Edmonton police said she was found in Oregon on the morning of July 2.
A 41-year-old man is in custody and will be facing charges of child luring. Edmonton police said additional charges may follow as the investigation progresses. They believe the two met online.
In a statement from the FBI Saturday, the Portland field office said it helped in the arrest of 41-year-old Noah Madrano for allegedly luring a 13-year-old girl from Canada to the U.S.
The Oregon City Police Department later confirmed Madrano was arrested July 2 at the request of the FBI and that he will be in court Tuesday afternoon on the Oregon State charges he is being held on: kidnapping II, sexual abuse I and rape II.
Several organizations were a part of the investigation, including ALERT (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams), Northern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation Unit, Oregon City Police and the FBI.
Stephen Sauer with Cybertip says generally, it’s more common for the luring and sexual exploitation to take place entirely online. Cybertip is fielding a lot of reports about incidents involving pressure to exchange sexually explicit photos or for youth to engage in live streams.
“The online luring of children, it’s almost a sense of urgency for us. We are seeing an unprecedented number of kids being lured or groomed.
Someone is communicating with them for the purposes of committing a sexual offence against them,” Sauer says.
“That increase is about 120 per cent over the last six months, in terms of the numbers we see.
“We’re averaging about 155 reports per month at the moment… of youth engaged in a conversation with someone who has sexually exploited them online.”
It’s less common for things to escalate into an in-person meeting, he says.
Sauer says children are more engaged in online platforms than ever before and offenders see that as an opportunity.
“Snapchat and Instagram are being used quite extensively for this type of activity at the moment. About 77 per cent of the reports that we’ve received through the tip line related to online luring pertain to Snapchat or Instagram.”
Little Warriors is seeing similar spikes in online child luring.
Dr. Wanda Polzin Holman, the organization’s clinical director, says offenders seem to be targeting different demographics. Recently, there’s been alerts issues in Alberta about child exploitation targeting boys aged nine to 13, she says.
“This is a really significant problem and I think over the last couple of years — through COVID and through children and teens having more access to computers and online usage and parents not necessarily being on top of this all the time — this has opened up a gateway for child predators in a way we’ve never seen before.”
“For girls, it happens a little bit slower,” Sauer adds. “What we’re seeing is they believe they’re in a relationship with a similarly-aged peer and that what is happening to them is part of a normal relationship with that person. Often there’s a lot of persistence by the individual who’s engaging with them.”
Advice for parents and guardians
“They should be having regular, ongoing conversations with their kids about technology, understanding a little bit more about that technology, and giving their kids the tools to understand where there’s red-flag behaviour,” Sauer says.
“Where there’s persistence, where someone is asking for something that makes you feel uncomfortable, that you come to a parent or safe adult in your life to let them know about that situation.”
He says, at that point, the child should stop all communication with that individual, the adults can maintain some records of the interaction and then contact Cybertip or their local police.
Polzin Holman says Little Warriors is trying to educate youth and caregivers about the risks and red flags.
“We’re also seeing a lot of incidents of what would be referred to as sextortion.
“We’re aware of children who are sending images back and forth to each other but they don’t recognize and realize that those images then become part of potentially the web and that those images can be passed on and that can be really traumatizing for them,” she says.
According to Polzin Holman, criminal behaviour can take place on even the most innocent-seeming apps.
“Being aware that a lot of interactions are happening in ways that parents and guardians may not know about through different platforms like games… like Roblox or Minecraft.
“They believe they’re talking to another child online but this is a place where there are child predators.
“Parents and guardians need to keep the conversation going, talking to their children about this, setting limits, making sure there’s ways to set parental controls on their devices, checking in, keeping lines of communication open.”
Edmonton Police Service Insp. Brent Dahlseide also stresses the importance of open communication.
“As a parent myself, if I’m in communication with my kids — on what they’re doing on social media or other media platforms, and aware of who they’re on with, who they’re communicating with, what information they’re actually putting out, personal information or otherwise — I think that helps potentially eliminate the opportunity for luring that individuals can try to take advantage of.
“Don’t be afraid to have that communication between parents and youth,” Dahlseide says.
Spike in online child exploitation
Between March 2020 and March 2021, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, or C3P, which runs the national tip-line Cybertip.ca, saw an 88 per cent increase in reports — many of those involved predators connecting with youth through social media and live stream platforms like Snapchat, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Omegle.
Sgt. Kerry Shima with the northern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit recommends parents download the apps their children are using and try the video games themselves.
Shima said there are no doubt a lot of cases that have gone unreported — with the victim and parents trying to manage the situation on their own. He stressed it was important to come forward to police.
“It can help not only their family, but it can also help other investigations.”
Social media companies ‘bear enormous responsibility’
“I think we’ve unfairly placed the burden on parents to figure this thing out,” said Signy Arnason, associate executive director for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, “and quite frankly, it’s a little bit ridiculous.
“You cannot stay on top of everything your kid is doing online.
“Companies bear an enormous responsibility for what needs to change here and so do governments. So we need to be demanding more.”
There is also a reporting tool on Cybertip.ca and steps to take if a youth is being sextorted.
— With files from Demi Knight, Global News
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