Assistant U.S. Attorney gives presentation
How safe are children on the Internet?

Wanda English Burnett - Editor

In our society, 16 seems to be a ‘magical’ number.

It’s the age when one can obtain a driver’s license, perhaps start dating and, according to Indiana State Law, make the decision to become sexually active legally.

Ironically, someone 16-years-old cannot legally purchase or use tobacco products or alcohol - but, can make a decision to have sexual contact that could lead to permanent physical or physiological damage.

Guest speaker Assistant United States Attorney Steven DeBrota told those gathered for a SIRPOR (Southeastern Indiana Regional Probation Officer Roundtable) event that the Internet is a great tool and on the flip side, can have a destructive effect at the same time.

At the February 28 SIRPOR meeting held at the Tyson Library in Versailles, those in attendance included probation officers and personnel from a seven county area. Judges and prosecutors were invited to the presentation DeBrota gave on Project Safe Childhood Crime Against Children, Computer Evidence and the Internet.

The two-and-a-half hour session left those in attendance with no doubt about the reality of sexual predators in Indiana and yes, right here in Ripley County.

The accessibility of the Internet has opened a whole new set of complications for law enforcement who deal with sex crimes against children. It’s not local anymore. One sexual predator can easily translate into hundreds in a matter of minutes as they share child pornography across the web. There are no boundaries or customs to cross, as pedophiles literally span countries with their evil deeds.

While DeBrota says his agency is fighting child exploitation cases with all they have - more needs to be done. He noted that the most dangerous predators are usually savvy to the Internet and can cover their tracks to some degree. On the other hand, specialists in computer crime, such as himself, are breaking the code.

DeBrota is the Special Emphasis Coordinator for child exploitation cases, the chairperson of the Indiana Interagency Environmental Crimes Task Force, and the chairperson of the Project Safe Childhood Task Force.

A professor at Indiana University, where he received a law degree in 1989, DeBrota lectures and is an expert in the investigation and prosecution of crimes on the Internet. He has trained agents, prosecutors and members of the public locally, nationally and internationally.

Coming to Ripley County for the SIRPOR organization was especially significant to Ripley County Chief Probation Officer Shannon Schmaltz. “We are honored to have him present this information to our group,” Schmaltz noted. The SIRPOR organization was formed by Schmaltz and others in 2004 and allows county agencies to come together to make a stronger impact on the communities they serve.

Schmaltz feels Ripley County is fortunate to have the type of informative seminar that will assist those who deal with crimes against children.

Information was disseminated at the presentation that was not made public due to its nature. Those in attendance gleaned ideas and techniques to make their performance more effective.

DeBrota’s achievements were outlined in a short biography. He received the United States Department of Justice Director’s Award in 2000 for superior performance. Last year the Anti-Sexual Violence Movement named DeBrota “Outstanding Prosecutor of the Year.” His achievements and honors are not what is important to DeBrota. His focus is on taking predators off the streets, or Internet, in this case, and seeing them incarcerated for years, maybe even life.

“It’s not enough to put the computer in your home in a general location such as the family room,” DeBrota told the group. While that’s a general safety tip, it’s not enough by itself to protect children, according to the expert.

There is a solution to keeping kids safe - many times it’s as simple as having dinner with your kids and talking to them. Not one night, but stay in tune with your children, DeBrota recommended.

“Many times children actively seek someone to have a relationship with. They are easy targets because they are willing,” DeBrota explained. These consensual victims are reluctant to talk with law enforcement emphatically asserting they are in charge. The bottom line is - until they are 16-years-old, they do not have the legal right to make such a decision. And, rightfully so, noted DeBrota, who said age has everything to do with developmental ability to make decisions. Sometimes kids just want attention and affection - something hopeful predators are willing to offer in exchange for their sexual gratification.

In the age of electronic connection, those in the “Y” generation, (up to 22 years of age) are plugged in 24/7. Kids have all sorts of computer access, electronic gadgets, and cellular phones that do everything imaginable to keep them connected with the flick of a button. Predators have the same technology and new agencies (federal and state) are being formed and are in the process of shutting down those who prey on the innocence of children.

What can parents do to guard against Internet predators?

Sgt. Noel Houze Jr. PIO for the Indiana State Police Versailles Post, gave some safety tips and agreed with DeBrota about staying “plugged in” to your children through old fashioned communication.

Tips include:
• Keep your computer in a common location.
• Do not allow children to have a computer with Internet connection in their room.
• Know your children’s passwords to various accounts, such as email, My Space, etc.
• Tell your children not to give personal information.
• Do not allow children to post photographs of themselves. Photos could be copied and altered.
• Check your web browser’s history to see what sites your children are visiting.
• If you suspect your child has been targeted by an Internet predator, contact your local police immediately.

Sgt. Houze notes, “Remember, you can be anyone you want to be on the Internet. That new friend your child has just made on the Internet might be another typical teenager looking for new friends. Or it might just be an adult sex offender shopping for his/her next victim.” He emphasized that parents should listen to their teen when they share information about a suggestive website. “Don’t immediately take Internet privileges away, teens can find an alternative way to get online,” he said. Instead, Sgt. Houze suggests talking about the site with the teen and call the police when in doubt.

If parents have questions or concerns about Internet safety, they can contact Sgt. Houze or Trooper Jesse Combs of the Indiana State Police at the Versailles Post at 689-5000 or 1-800-566-6704 (in Indiana only).