OK mama bears, it’s back to school season, and your minds and schedules are filled with school supply shopping, after-school activity planning and pick-up-drop-off organizing. You’ve been focused on everything your cub needs to succeed when they walk through the doors for that first day, and you probably have the logistics down pat. Essentially, you’re ready to go, but have you talked to your kids about how they can keep themselves safe when they aren’t with you? When they’re at school or in the care of another person? It’s probably not a topic parents want to think about, but communicating simple tips on how to avoid these situations in the physical world, as well as the online world, could keep your child out of harms way.
In fact, it is during this back-to-school season that there is an increase in reported cases of child abuse. Children have been home all summer, or possibly away from friends they deeply trust, but once they get back to school and feel like they can trust their friends or teachers, they divulge abuse that has occurred at home, camp or elsewhere.
Two leaders in this field, Lynn M. Davis, CEO and President of Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, and Emily Vacher, Facebook Director of Trust and Safety and former FBI, spoke with us recently at the Dallas-based Crimes Against Children Conference about tips on keeping your kids safe as well as how the community can get involved in combatting this issue.
DFWChild: This is Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center’s (DCAC) 31st year in holding this conference, and now Dallas is a leader in the efforts to combat crimes against kids. Can you tell me about the conference? Lynn M. Davis: This conference we started 30 years ago is now the largest in the world. We have 5,300 people this year, up 300 from last year. Every state is represented, and there are over 30 countries represented as well. Law enforcement, state and federal, makes up about 60–70% of attendees and the rest are primarily child advocates, counselors, nurses, doctors, attorneys and district attorneys. This year we have 320 speakers and 500 workshops on topics that range from the basic to the most advanced. We have the best speakers from all over the world; for example, this year we have speakers from Ireland, England and even Interpol. Ultimately, we are providing training for all local, national and international attendees on best practices on investigating and prosecuting cases as well as best practices in treating victims.
Child: What are DCAC’s goals for this conference?
LD: Our goal every year is to educate and train our attendees on best practices. This year, specifically, our goal is to get law enforcement to change their ways of interviewing and come around to let DCAC and similar groups interview the kids instead. We want to do this because there are some law enforcement agencies who still interview a child in front of the abusive parents or on the bed where they were assaulted. This does not result in a good interview. Second, our goal this year is also to remind law enforcement that the job keeps going even after they’ve got the bad guy and their part of the case is closed. We want them to get counselors involved, get the kids some help. Just because the case is over for the police or agents, it doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near over for that child. This year we also have all the large tech companies, such as Apple and Facebook, basically anyone who might have perpetrators using their system. For example, Microsoft is here this year with some of their people whose job is to just sit, listen and monitor Xbox conversations for signs of perpetrators trying to groom children. When they hear these signals, they shut down the conversation. What we want to do with these two groups is educate law enforcement on how to access these tech companies so they can work hand in hand to track the perpetrators down through the system.
Child: Keeping kids safe starts in the home, but knowing how to talk to kids about this subject might seem overwhelming. What are some tips on getting that conversation going?
Emily Vacher: It’s all about that parent-child relationship, and it starts with a conversation. But you have to start that conversation early, around 4 or 5 years old; don’t wait. If you wait until they’re 16, then you’ve missed the boat. Create a “tech talk” and have online activity be a family activity. The Internet isn’t going anywhere, so this is a part of your life, and you can’t not address it. On Facebook, we have a parent center and safety center with tips and suggestions like conversation starters. You want to have your kid have an understanding of how to stay safe, why it’s important and what and what not to share. Parents should also check out the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) for valuable resources; it was developed by psychologists and other experts and is organized by age. These will allow you to deliver a message that has impact. Also, just as kids need to be safe about what they do online, so do parents. When sharing any personal information: Think before you share. Take a moment to think about what information should be public— like trying to get out info about a missing kid versus what should just be for the family. For example, where your kindergartner is attending school. Ultimately, remember, there’s no one way to keep your kids safe; there’s many.
Child: How is Facebook, specifically, working to keep kids safe from child predators?
EV: Facebook has strong privacy settings—you have the control over what is shared, but that means you have to know who’s in your circle. People have a tendency to look at quantity of friends. Instead, you should look at the quality. Also, talk to your kids about what they want to be shared. Your kids may not want their every move shared with your friends. Also, Facebook has a two-factor authentication system in order to prevent unwanted entry into your account as well as tools and resources that can educate parents; we want to provide safety nets. Finally, Facebook has the Amber Alert feature, which we are updating. We launched it in January 2015 in the U.S. and have since launched in 20 more countries. We want to make it that no matter where a kid lives, they should have the same access to help from us. We want to give the tools to everyone, so they have them to keep kids safe.
Child: What are some ways the community, as a whole, can get involved? For example, those that don’t have access to this kind of conference—teachers, parents, etc.
LD: Moms, start talking to your kids as soon as they can understand anything. Kids need to know early on—don’t let anyone touch you where your bathing suit covers. Remind them that they can tell Mom or Dad anything. This should start as early as when they’re 2 years old to 4 years old. Then, when they’re older, you don’t have to have the same discussions since you’ve been having it with them since they were young. Also, in Texas we have a mandated reporting system—if you are at least 18 and you see something suspicious, you must say something. Now, you are only required to report a suspicion; it’s not your job to confirm, just report. If you don’t report, and a child has been abused, it’ll just get worse. It never gets better. Finally, trust your gut. Moms have great guts. Ultimately, make the report; you could save a child’s life. If it ends up not being abuse, it can also let the other caregiver know someone else is looking out for his or her kid.
EV: Currently Facebook is working to promote the Runaway Train video remake. This song and video was originally created 25 years ago, and now it’s been remade with three new artists with the objective of raising awareness of missing children. This video is going to save lives—it has geo-targeted technology embedded in it so, based on your location, you will be shown kids that are missing in your area. Studies show that 61% of missing children are found in the state they went missing, so this technology is huge. In the three months that it’s been running, five kids have already been found. The video is even up for an award at the MTV Video Music Awards in the “Art for Good” category. We’re excited that Facebook will be donating $1 million to NCMEC, so the video can run as an ad on Facebook and Instagram, so more people can see it, but we need those in the community to share the video too.
If would like to, please share the above video on your social media, so you can help missing and exploited children in your area.