I’ve dealt with a lot of runaways. As a former police officer, I saw cases of runaway children all the time. Each one of these children were either running to something, or from something. I saw a lot of children running from abusive home environments and feelings of anger or failure, and from restrictive foster care placements. I saw them run to gangs and to people who could support a drug or alcohol addiction. But nowadays, in my role as a NCMEC Missing Child Case Manager, I’m seeing a new type of situation which children are running to: internet relationships.
At NCMEC, we use the term “online enticement” to describe these internet relationships that involve children. Officially, we define that as online activity that “involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.” Internet service providers, websites, apps and the public can report suspected online enticement to NCMEC’s CyberTipline at CyberTipline.org. But in many of the cases that are coming across my desk, there is no report made to the CyberTipline. No one has taken notice of the child’s online life. To the distraught parent calling 1-800-THE-LOST to report their child missing, their child simply up and vanished without reason.
But there’s always a reason when you dig deeper. Take for example a case from earlier this year.
A mother called NCMEC to report her 13-year-old daughter missing. According to her mother, she had never run away before, she had no boyfriend, and had seemingly no reason to run. But the note her daughter left suggested differently.
The note read something like this:
You’ve been a great mother. Thank you. Please don’t worry about me. I just want to be free and be able to do what I want. I’m sorry I’ve been such a failure.
But that’s not all her daughter left behind.
She also left her backpack with a list inside. The list noted
- Tasks to take care of before leaving home
- Color of a car
- Directions to a meeting spot
- Time to meet
Worried about her daughter, this mother took to Facebook and posted that her daughter was missing. Luckily, some of her daughter’s friends saw the post and shared what they knew of the situation. One had heard her say that her boyfriend was mad at her. Another heard her discuss the possibility of running away. Another knew of past relationships that the young girl had had with people she met online, particularly those she met through a web cam chat site.
With this information and a tip from an attentive neighbor, local law enforcement was able to coordinate with the FBI in a neighboring state and rescue the child. She was found in the home of a 34-year-old man who had picked her up from a convenience store parking lot near her home, and transported her across state lines. The man was arrested for Transporting a Minor for the Purpose of Having Sex, with more charges pending.
This man knew the victim’s real age; 13. He knew that children that young cannot consent to sex, no matter what they say or do online. And yet he drove to her neighborhood and picked her up all the same.
Unfortunately, this case is not unique. I’ve personally worked dozens of cases just like this. No parent likes to consider that their child may be talking to strangers online and they especially don’t like thinking about their child exploring sexuality with strangers online. Some parents feel so lost in all the technology that they can’t fathom the threats, let alone how to talk about safety.
But we have to.
As safe, trusted adults, we have to talk about digital safety. Online actions often have offline consequences. What may seem like harmless chatting with a stranger can snowball into an online enticement situation very quickly. These types of chats could even turn into situations of cyberstalking, blackmail or extortion.
Children need to know that they can come to you or other trusted adults in their lives if they have questions about sensitive topics, including sex. It’s better that they learn about healthy relationships from you or someone you trust than the internet. Try asking children questions like:
- Has anyone ever tried talking to you online about inappropriate or sexual things? What did you do?
- Do you trust all your online “friends” or followers? Are there any people you should unfriend or block?
- Do you know how to report, flag or block people on the websites and apps you use? Can you show me?
- Who would you talk to if you were upset by a request you received online?
If during these types of conversations you hear something that is upsetting, try to remain measured and calm. Children make mistakes and your relationship with your child is more important than the mistake.
If you are looking for more resources about online safety and talking to kids, visit MissingKids.org/NetSmartz/Topics.
And for additional resources about navigating relationships with children or teens who have run away, visit https://www.1800runaway.org/parents-guardians/.