April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Years ago, we spoke with a survivor named Julie, who shared her story of how she was enticed online by a 56-year-old man and ended up running away to be with him.
If you haven’t seen “Julie’s Journey,” check it out here:
As we wrap up this month of awareness, we decided to catch up with Julie and her mom to talk about their perspective now, years later, and what they wished families knew today.
NCMEC – As a family who has experienced online enticement, what should people know and what are the missing pieces?
Julie- We have to increase awareness. Most of the articles I read about online exploitation center on the family and the survivor without much emphasis on the offender. I think it’s important to talk about the offender and how they do what they do to control children. The psychological control I was under influenced every decision I made and consumed my mind. Predators know how to talk like children, attract children to interesting things they have and be friendly with kids.
Lots of kids are in situations where they need to identify grooming. It’s also important to discuss how a survivor finds forgiveness for their mistakes. Feelings of guilt and disillusionment happen for the survivor too; you doubt every decision after something like this happens. You lose a sense of discernment. I remember feeling like I was always pretending to be a good person and I wasn’t sure who I was. I was pretending to be ok, but I wasn’t.
Julie’s Mom- The power of persuasion. Many parents think removing internet privileges fixes everything, it doesn’t. Another myth is that a child is safe because he/she is not missing. Unfortunately, online exploitation is sophisticated. Virtual abuse is intense and abusers are able to take control of your child. It's often undetected too. This means your child can be abused right in their own bedrooms, when they play an online game, or read their text messages. I'm not saying things are hopeless. Giving kids discernment tools so they can make safer decisions for themselves is important. Instead of saying everything about the Internet is terrible and there’s nothing to be done, adults can do better by knowing the facts and being realistic about how to move forward.
NCMEC: What changed for you both after this happened?
Julie- I began to think constantly about attraction and be hyperaware when someone was attracted to me. I was also hypervigilant of how men were interacting with people around me and to me. I would keep people at a distance, be very skeptical of a person’s intention. On a positive level, this has motivated me to not have this experience define my life. I want this to be one of many chapters in my life that defines me and I fight really hard for stability, vision and truth. Any type of deception concerns me and I get worried if someone seems overly attached, wondering if that is normal. This human being was a violent, evil person.
Julie’s Mom - For me as a parent, the traditional comfort of safety, having your children home, and knowing their friends, etc. become less relevant in an online exploitation case. I became very cynical, very suspicious and disillusioned about my parenting. I saw danger everywhere. I lost my sense that the world was a safe place and didn't enjoy social contact like I once did. I had very black and white thinking and I couldn’t talk without swearing.
NCMEC: Thinking back on the years since you recorded Julie’s Journey, what do you both want to tell that young person from long ago?
Julie- It’s ok to make mistakes; forgive yourself. You are a kid and defenseless against evil. There are people out there who want to hurt you without any consideration of others. The more things you are attached to, the harder it will be for an offender to pull you away. If you’re involved in a lot of things, this can give you connection to others and the community. It’s important to have friends looking out for you because it is hard to tell your parents about this. Keep kids engaged in their family unit or in school. I am proving that I can still make something out of myself that is bigger than what happened to me. I had to learn to release the fear of people’s judgement; for many years I didn’t want anyone to talk about it and needed to find a safe place to unload. It is wrong to carry the burden alone.
Julie’s Mom- Manipulation and fear controlled you. Families can alleviate a lot of shame when they understand that children cannot be expected to outsmart an adult with ulterior motives. This is why exploitation is a crime.
NCMEC: What do you think is the most important thing for survivors or victims to know or what do you wish they knew?
Julie- It’s easy for young people to think everything is private online, but it’s not. You wouldn’t show a stranger a private picture of you in public, so why do it online? People are fishing for opportunity and want to take advantage. Your reputation matters in person and online. I wish teenagers thought it was cool to not talk online. I see posts online about kids hating family, school, feeling misunderstood or lonely. Immediately that child may have 50 people in their inbox who are looking to exploit that vulnerability. Take online interaction as serious as face-to-face ones. Who you are online should be the same as who you are in person. I also want youth to know there are professionals you can talk to who will listen.
Julie’s Mom- Caution isn’t meant to control your freedom or clip your wings. It’s about being careful. To someone who is exploited, know that it’s never too late to talk to someone about it. It’s easy to think you're in too far, but you aren’t. Trust someone and talk about what's happening.
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For more information on how to keep your kids safe online, visit NetSmartz.org. And if you need someone to talk to, know you aren’t alone. NCMEC has people who can help. Visit https://www.missingkids.org/ourwork/support