Mary Klaff's daughter loves the Internet — she particularly likes Barbie.com. Klaff knows that her daughter's computer habits are harmless now, but she worries about what web sites the future will bring.
"She's more computer savvy than I am," said Klaff.
That is why Mary Klaff joined her sister-in-law Christin Klaff at last week's Neighbors International luncheon on Internet safety. Both women wanted to learn more about the dangers posed by the Internet, and what parents can do to protect their children from them. Diane Beatty, president of ChildSafeNet, Inc., spoke at the luncheon, and discussed how the arrest of her father inspired her to create a program that puts Fairfax County Police on constant vigil for Internet sex offenders.
Several years ago, Beatty's father was arrested for attempting to solicit a minor by posing as a Biology tutor on the Internet. Beatty heard about the arrest via a friend who had seen it on the news, and when she did, she decided to come forward with her story about the years of sexual abuse by her father that she endured as a child.
Beatty knew she had made the right decision when her father was sentenced to only two years in prison for his Internet crimes, but he received 10 years of jail time for his crimes against her. When Beatty called her father's sister and told her what had happened, she learned that her father had also abused his sister when they were young.
"My father was 60 years old when he got caught on the Internet," said Beatty. "We're talking about someone with a 40-year history of being a sexual predator, so I have no doubt that if given the opportunity again, he would take advantage."
AFTER HER FATHER was sentenced, Beatty decided to research programs geared toward monitoring Internet sex offenders. With the support of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10), Beatty was able to get seed money to start ChildSafeNet, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works with Fairfax County Police to develop and implement the P'CASO (Protecting Children Against Sex Offenders) program.
"We were able to get enough funding to put four officers in charge of sex predator enforcement, and we also got funding for two additional positions assigned solely to Internet surveillance," said Beatty. "The detectives are waiting for predators to approach them — it's amazing how many lines you can throw out, to how many fish are reeled in."
ChildSafeNet, Inc. was able to get enough money to see the program through for five years. There are 15 months left and Beatty is hoping to raise enough money via contributions and governmental support to keep the program going.
"We've been told that they really need to see the community step up behind us," said Beatty. "But the cases that the police are building with these resources are very powerful."
Beatty said that statistics also prove that sexual predators on the Internet are a growing problem and a major cause for concern. According to her, there were 10,400 registered sex offenders in Virginia in 2001, and 14,000 registered sex offenders in Virginia today.
"So we are getting approximately 1,000 new sex offenders added to our registry every year," said Beatty.
LT. SCOTT DURHAM, Child Services Unit Supervisor for the Fairfax County Police Department , also spoke at last week's Neighbors Hot Topic luncheon. Durham said there are 401 registered sex offenders in Fairfax County, 35 of whom are currently incarcerated. Durham's detectives devote many hours to careful surveillance of suspicious activity.
In one recent case, a 12-year-old girl informed police that she had been approached by a 30-year-old man on the street. When she told him she was "only 12" he was unfazed and offered her his name and cell phone number, which she then turned over to the police. Durham's unit followed the suspect constantly for three weeks, but he picked up on the surveillance and abruptly moved to Seattle, Washington.
"I had 12 different cars following him for 12 hours," said Durham. "He didn't appear to have anywhere to go, he just went to the library, to the store and then back to his house."
Durham's officers also spend time on the Internet posing as young teenage girls in the hopes of arranging meetings with would-be sex offenders.
"Our primary purpose … is the prevention of crime," said Durham.
Beatty reiterated Durham's comment and noted that the prevention of sex crimes is the primary goal of the P'CASO program.
"It's always been very reactive, and what we would like to do is make very proactive," said Beatty. "We want to get them on the Internet before they can get to a child."
That is why Beatty says that it is equally important to educate the community as it is to have police officers on the job. ChildSafeNet, Inc. has one paid employee who handles Internet safety training. Safety training presentations are available to any interested community organizations, and can be tailored to meet individual agendas.
"If we're not bringing education programs into the community, we're just throwing money in one direction," said Beatty.
SHERI BERMAN, a member of the Safe Community Coalition (SCC), attended the luncheon because the SCC is hoping to sponsor such a program for parents of students in the Langley and McLean High School pyramids.
"I think parents really want to know specific things they can do to stay on top of their children's Internet use," said Berman.
Beatty said it is estimated that one third of Internet users between the ages of 10-17 are exposed to unwanted sexual material online — a number that is 20 percent higher than it was in the year 2000. In addition, Beatty said that 9 out of 10 of those users will stumble on to hard core porn.
"So not only are there more sex offenders, but we're seeing our kids get more and more exposed to it," said Beatty, who has strict rules regarding computer usage in her house. "The computer is in the living room, so I can walk by it all the time, and my 11-year-old son has certain games that he can go to bookmarked, and that is it for him."
Lt. Durham also advises parents not to allow their children to have private computers in their bedrooms.
"I don't want to make the Internet out to be evil … but it really is like a shopping catalogue for child predators," said Durham. "He can hit on 1,000 children, but all he has to do is be successful one time. If I had 100 detectives I could find work for them because it's so prolific now — we can't protect every child and that's why the educational component is so vital now."
Beatty also recommends the installation of programs that keep a log of specific computer usage.
"It's like a little diary of what they did on the computer all day, and it can be done invisibly to the user," said Beatty. "It literally records every keystroke."