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On-line chat rooms: new risk for unsuspecting children

CLEVELAND (BP)–Paul Brown Jr. convinced teenage girls he was a young boy in need of affection — even though the 47-year-old Cleveland resident weighed 400 pounds.

He met them in on-line “chat rooms” and persuaded one 12-year-old girl to make pornographic videos.

Police searched Brown’s apartment recently and found correspondence from 10 other girls.

“You don’t know who you’re talking to,” said Colin Gabriel Hatcher about chat room conversations.

Hatcher is with Cyber Angels, an Internet safety organization which gathers evidence for police organizations and last year collected 5,000 documents for investigations against pedophiles.

It helped. In recent months, the FBI conducted 207 searches and made 66 felony arrests in a sweep against child pornography.

“One cyber patrol member reported 500 cases of child porn being swapped in one afternoon,” Hatcher said.

“The Internet offers wonderful opportunities and tremendous promise,” said Jerry R. Kirk. “It has also become a place where pedophiles lurk.”

Kirk is president of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, a nondenominational organization in the fight against illegal porn.

The nation’s escalating problem with cyber porn starts innocently in most families: You get a computer for your family. You join an on-line service for access to the Internet. You expect educational opportunities.

But children drift into on-line group conversations. They meet people from all over the world. Strangers can hide in each encounter.

“It’s like leaving a child in the middle of a red light district,” Hatcher said. “They think they’re chatting with other kids.”

Software can offer different levels of protection, either filtering the information from the computer or rating the material before it arrives.

Christian Computing magazine recommends “Net Nanny.” It uses the filter method. Parents choose which web sites can be visited. It allows no other access to the Internet and even records attempts made.

Internet World magazine gave its highest rating to “Cyber Patrol.” It’s a rating system but uses a combination approach. You adjust the level of protection for each user. For an extra fee, Cyber Patrol offers yearly updates.

Cyber Patrol also allows parents to restrict the information “going out of the computer, and that’s the danger in chat rooms,” Hatcher said.

In an interactive computer chat, an adult on the prowl either “tries to get personal information or talk in private,” he said. “Kids get sexually propositioned.”

Several months ago, a 14 year-old-girl from Brighton, N.Y., ran away with Brooker Maltais, a 22-year-old airman stationed in Nebraska. They met on the Internet. Nebraska police spotted the pair and said the girl appeared to be with the man by choice.

“We have a whole new avenue of opportunity for the pedophile,” said Bruce Taylor. “They have characteristically gone where the children are and where the parents least expect them to be.”

Taylor is president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, a legal assistance organization.

Parents can increase the protection of their children with several tips:

— Keep the computer in a public room where you can watch the activity.

— Remind children to never give out personal information like names, phone numbers or addresses.

— Report suspicious conversations to the on-line service or police.

— Use chat rooms that are closely supervised. The Cyber Angels recommend several like Talk City, Super Chat and Another Net.

Their volunteers monitor conversations in those areas and remove suspicious adults.

“Pedophiles send children pornographic pictures,” Hatcher said. “Once a child gets involved in this world … they’re actively cooperating with these adults.”

It starts off as a simple conversation. But molesters direct the relationship into sexual topics.

The children in turn hesitate to tell parents out of fear of punishment. Their silence protects the abuser. And the problem continues.

Hatcher recounted one example of a 16-year-old boy who started a relationship in a chat room. The new friend sent child porn, and the 16- year-old stored pictures on his computer. The mother found them and contacted Cyber Angels.

“It never occurred to him that these were horrible … acts,” Hatcher added. “He just thought it was like, fun.”
Gerald F. Sullivan, 27, was a music teacher in Utica, N.Y. But he recently was charged with third-degree obscenity and lost his job. Sullivan thought he was sending child porn to a 15-year-old girl.

The state police had a computer crimes unit based nearby. They pretended to be the girl and received his pictures.

The same happened to James Barrows, 55, of Madison, Conn. He thought he was corresponding with a 13-year-old girl over America Online and passed on various pictures of child pornography. Barrows then tried to arrange a sexual encounter and walked into the arms of several detectives.

“It’s probably the main way that pedophiles are trafficking in pictures and finding kids,” Taylor said.

Congress passed the Communications Decency Act last year in a move to restrict obscenity on-line. President Clinton signed the bill, but a federal court in Philadelphia blocked enforcement of the law.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the case, but one section of the law went unchallenged. It protects children from being stalked.

“The pedophiles think of themselves as being invisible right now,” Taylor said. “They have infected the Internet with the worse kind of virus.”

    About the Author

  • Clay Renick