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Internet: Friend or Foe?

Experts talk to McLean citizens about dangers that the Internet poses to their children.

A few years ago, Diane Beatty was on her way home from work when she received a phone call from a relative informing her that her father was on the evening news. He had just been arrested by Fairfax County Police for attempting to solicit minors by posing as a biology teacher on the Internet. It was then that Beatty decided to contact the police and inform them that her father sexually abused her from the time she was 5, up until she was 12.

"As a victim you always think it's just you," said Beatty.

The police were able to catch Beatty's father by pretending to be a teenage girl and arranging to meet with him in a local park.

"They went to the park the day before the appointed meeting to scope it out and my father was there doing the same thing," said Beatty. "He was 60 years old at the time of his arrest, and the girl that he thought he was talking to was 13."

Beatty was able to get her father to confess to sexually abusing her by calling him on the phone and taping the conversation. She says she is glad she did this because he was only sentenced to two years in prison for the Internet crime, but he received a 10-year sentence for his abuse of her.

"I've been going to his parole hearings, but he is going to be released this August and there is nothing that I can do about that," said Beatty. "I had two young children and he lived two and a half miles away from me, so I was really concerned for the safety of my children."

Subsequently, Beatty went to the police and asked them how they handled sexual offenders. She was told that they did not really have the manpower to keep a close watch on their activities.

"I thought, wow, that's unacceptable. What's going to happen when he is released?" said Beatty.

Beatty's fear prompted her to do some research and look into other safety programs. She found two that she loved — one from Bedford, Va. and one from Dallas, Texas. She combined the two concepts and went to Fairfax County with her idea. They put a plan together but told Beatty that it would cost $12 million to run the program and pay the officers who would be a part of it. To raise money, Beatty started her own non-profit, ChildSafeNet, Inc.

As a result, there are now three paid police officers whose only job is to monitor sex offenders in Fairfax County.

"Our mission, quite simply, is to make our community safer for our kids," said Beatty.

LAST THURSDAY, Beatty was one of several speakers at a meeting put on by the Woman's Club of McLean at Dolley Madison Library. The program was designed to inform parents about the dangers that the Internet can pose to their children, and to give them ideas on how to keep informed about their children's online activity.

Iris Beckwith, vice president of program and partner relations for the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, also spoke at Thursday's event. Like Beatty, Beckwith was also a victim of sexual abuse.

"Seven or eight years ago, I really got concerned about the Internet after watching my own kids on it," said Beckwith.

The Internet Keep Safe Coalition makes an effort to teach children how to safely navigate the web, and how to guard their personal information from strangers.

"We teach kids three basic safety rules," said Beckwith. "Keep, Don't Meet and Tell — kind of like Stop, Drop and Roll."

The idea is to encourage children to keep their personal information to themselves, to avoid meeting anyone online and to immediately tell an adult when someone asks them for these kinds of things.

Beckwith says that it is also important for parents to constantly update the parental controls on their home computers. According to the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, there has been a massive increase in Internet usage by children.

"This is the first generation growing up on the Internet," said Beckwith. "It is their shared experience .… the Internet has a really false sense of security. They simply don't get how vulnerable they are."

Parent Cathy Sloan decided to attend Thursday's program after seeing an advertisement for it in the newspaper.

"I just worry about young teenagers seeing stuff they shouldn't see, even if they are not looking for it," said Sloan, who has one teenage son and a teenage daughter. "I mean, naked women pop up on my screen for no reason, so I don't want that happening to him. I wouldn't buy him a 'Playboy' magazine and it's basically the same thing."

Sloan says she is less worried about her daughter's use of the Internet.

"If she sees something bad she'll skip over it. She has a good sense of what's wrong," she said.

However, Sloan says one problem she has encountered is that the parental controls sometimes prohibit online research required for schoolwork.

"Sometimes he'll say 'mom I need your log-on because I have to do something for school,' so I just sign him on to my computer, but I don't let him see the password," said Sloan.

Beckwith says that this kind of parental monitoring is good, and that she definitely does not recommend allowing children to have computers in the privacy of their own room.

"Don't be afraid to parent your kids both on and off-line, and say 'this is my house, my rules,'" said Beckwith. "We tend to not want to scare our kids, but middle schoolers need to hear the scary stuff."

Lynn Rafferty of R.A.D Kids also spoke at the Woman's Club of McLean event. R.A.D Kids is a peer safety program for elementary school kids. Rafferty says the fundamentals of the program are to teach children that no one has the right to hurt them, that they do not have the right to hurt anyone else including themselves, and that if anyone ever does hurt them, they should talk to a trusted adult about it.

"When I heard those words for the first time when I was 43, I felt so much better," said Rafferty, who was also a victim of sexual abuse. "I had never heard that before."

She urged parents to encourage their children to trust their instincts.

"The main thing is communication," said Rafferty. "As your kids get older you have to be a better and better listener… it's not just one conversation, it's an ongoing conversation and the topic is always changing. A molester once said, 'the best gift you can give me is an ignorant child.'"