By SUZAN DELIBASIC,
Online predators are connecting with parents online in order to gain access to their children. Experts say single parents should not post photos or information about their children on their online dating profiles.
Detective Inspector for Task Force Argos, Jon Rouse, works within a specialised branch of the Queensland Police Service responsible for investigating online child exploitation and abuse.
Det-Insp Rouse said the taskforce had encountered situations where child sex offenders had targeted single mothers on dating sites. They look for women who post photos of their children or mention them on their profiles.
"Mothers are posting the photos and providing personal information about their children because they think it is appropriate for any prospective or potential partner to be fully aware of their circumstances,” he said.
Det-Insp Rouse said child sex offenders had then become involved with the mothers and gained their trust.
“In the cases that we have investigated, the mothers have left their children in the care of the child sex offender when they have gone shopping ... and while they have been away, their new ‘partner’ has sexually abused their children,” he said.
“Our team intercepted sexually abusive images of young children in the course of our daily investigations, examined them and identified the location of the victims that were being sexually abused.
"We were the ones who notified the children's mothers – they didn't have a clue that this was happening,” he said.
Det-Insp Rouse said in 2014 there were three incidents over a period of six months relating to this issue.
He urged people to use all dating sites and mobile phone apps with great caution.
"Leave your children completely out of the online dating process so that you don't attract the wrong kind of attention. Make the online dating about you, not your kids,” he said.
Cyber safety specialist for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, Jeremy Blackman, said parents sharing information on social networks and dating sites was a major concern.
Mr Blackman said France had drafted a proposal to tighten privacy laws around parents sharing pictures of their children without their permission. This could result in children suing their parents.
“Interactions on dating sites are presented as ‘getting to know the person’ over time, so in regards to building trust and child predation, this is definitely a vulnerable area for parents,” Mr Blackman said.
“To reduce risk, parents should never reveal specific information about their children, such as: the school/child care centre they attend, likes/dislikes, identifiable features, photos/videos,” he said.
Founder and CEO of The Carly Ryan Foundation, Sonya Ryan, said it was very common for predators to look for single parents with children on dating sites.
“Parents on dating sites are often vulnerable and open because they are simply looking for love or to be loved,” she said.
Ms Ryan’s daughter, Carly Ryan, 15, was murdered in 2007 after being lured online by paedophile Garry Francis Newman. He groomed her for 18 months by posing as an 18-year-old guitarist called Brandon Kane.
“Nothing can prepare you for the lengths a predator will go to trying to access your child,” she said.
Ms Ryan said parents should use Skype and conduct background checks before meeting someone they had met online.
“Most people require police clearances for employment these days, so it should never be a problem, and if excuses are made then obviously that person may be trying to hide something,” she said.
Internet communications and technology team leader for South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA), Juliet Summers, is an online project worker who assists survivors of sexual assault.
“Predators will always be found in any target-rich environment and the reality is that they are targeting mums to get to their children,” Ms Summers said.
“I think everyone should have more education about the issue of digital footprints. It can often be hard to identify online grooming until it is too late,” she said.
Criminologist for child protection group Bravehearts, Carol Ronken said people typically thought predators targeted social media sites, such as Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat and Kik Messenger.
“I think with increases in media attention parents are aware of the risks, but I draw parallels to what we see in relation to the statistics around child sexual assault more broadly. Parents know it happens, know the risks, but do not think that it will affect them or their children,” she said.
Ms Ronken said parents who used dating sites should be extremely cautious and put in strategies to protect their children, such as not posting photos of them or disclosing their names.
“Single parents using these sites have been targeted in the past and if parents don’t take the appropriate precautions they will be putting their children at risk,” she said.
CEO for major Australian dating site Oasis.com, Dave Heysen, said Oasis urged its members to be familiar with their safe dating guidelines when meeting new people.
“This rule applies to all members, including single parents,” he said.
Mr Heysen said when people met someone new it was important to get to know the person and trust them before introducing them to friends and family. He said this was true whether the couple met in a pub, a club or online.
“Unfortunately when people take their relationship offline, the dating website through which they met has very little influence over how people conduct their personal relationships,” he said.
Private investigator and director for online investigations, Julia Robson, who has appeared on 60 Minutes to assist with investigations relating to online dating scams, said there were always risks when single parents entered back into the dating game.
“These risks increase more when parents incorporate their children and their identities into their dating life,” Ms Robson said.
“This can include including pictures of their children in their dating profiles, stating children’s names and ages, sharing details about their children’s routine and interests and introducing their children to their date at an early stage."
Ms Robson said parents should make the dating experience about themselves only, and remove references to their children or being a single parent from their public profiles.
“Once you have begun your private conversation with a potential date online, it is recommended to explain that you would like to get to know the person better before you provide any further detail about your children. Take your time to introduce your children to your date in person,” she said.
Ms Robson offers a service called CupidScreen, a tool that provides background checks and investigative services to users of online dating.
“This service has given increased awareness about the issues people can face online. It has given people the confidence to know there is somewhere they can turn to if they have concerns about the honesty of the person they are dating online,” she said.
International ambassador for online child safety Alicia Kozakiewicz runs The Alicia Project to provide support for victims of abduction and sexual exploitation. When she was 13 she was lured by an online sexual predator, raped, tortured and held against her will for almost a week.
Ms Kozakiewicz, now 21, said predators were crafty when it came to grooming and abusing children.
“They may use dating websites to gather information from parents for the purposes of learning that they have children that they wish to abuse,” she said.
Ms Kozakiewicz said parents should be mindful when using online dating services as they could easily bring their child into contact with a predator.
“Parents need to educate themselves around the dangers of dating online. They are the first line of defence when it pertains to keeping their children safe.”
If you or your children are in immediate danger or risk, call 000, Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, or contact your local police.