Stealing Innocence

How are children exploited online? It can start with a photo

Every student knows someone whose photo has been shared in a way that exploits them, says a police officer who spends her days investigating online predators.

Police get new case every day or 2, and there's no getting pictures back from cyberspace

Const. Lisa Harris of the RNC investigates internet child exploitation with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted Dillon/CBC )

As soon as Const. Lisa Harris started typing in the online chat room, a stranger claiming to be a 24-year old male initiated a conversation. 

He kept chatting even after she led him to believe she was a 15-year-old female. He wanted to know where she was from and what she was up to. 

It didn't go any further than that.    

But Harris said internet child exploitation officers get new investigations involving teenagers in Newfoundland and Labrador at least every second day. The teens may have shared intimate images online with friends or romantic partners.  

By the time the police get involved, the images have been widely circulated. Strangers can make the pictures available to others right around the world.  

Harris poses as a 15-year-old girl in an Omegle chat room in a conversation with a stranger. (Ted Dillon/CBC )

It's affected hundreds of families in the province. 

"Once something is sent out into cyberspace, there's no getting it back," said Harris. "The unfortunate part is that as much as we can try and investigate and ensure the image is deleted or hasn't been spread, we don't have any power to delete the internet." 

Locals online to have sex with young people

Harris works on internet child exploitation investigations with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU) in St. John's. The team includes both Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and RCMP officers. 

Young people and parents have heard the warnings many times about the dangers of sharing sexual images by text, email or other means. 

But the extent of the problem in Newfoundland and Labrador might be an eye-opener. 

Harris said just within the last six months, her unit has done six undercover investigations of locals who are going online to try to meet up with and have sex with young people. 

Someone posts an online ad seeking a relationship with a teenager. (Ted Dillon/CBC )

Her partner poses variously as a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old in online chat rooms, sometimes as a boy, sometimes as a girl.

Harris said the officer gets bombarded with messages from people looking to lure and exploit children.  

'I'm wondering if they've seen my picture'

As for herself, Harris has noticed something alarming when she gives school presentations. 

She'll ask how many students know someone who has shared or received exploitative messages.

"I would say almost 100 per cent of the classes that I present to admit and acknowledge that they know somebody, if they're not the individuals who sent it themselves," said Harris.

Harris said the students' slang for intimate images is skins

She believes only a small number of exploitation cases are reported to the police.

Six police officers with the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit investigate internet child exploitation in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC )

Either way, the impact is traumatic. For instance, at one presentation, a girl told Harris that some images she'd shared online had spread beyond her control. 

"She basically said, 'You know, every time somebody recognizes me, every time someone smiles at me or whispers in my presence, I'm wondering if they've seen my picture, have they seen my nude image before,'" said Harris.

That's devastating, said Angela Crockwell, executive director of Thrive, which runs programs for young people affected by issues including poverty and sexual exploitation.  

"Every time somebody is viewing those images, they're further exploiting that young person," said Crockwell.  

Harris agreed. 

Children as young as 7 exploited online

If the person responsible for sharing the images is under 18, it's possible they'll get a warning. There's no leniency for adults. 

In March, a 34-year-old man from Corner Brook received a seven-year sentence on several charges connected to internet child exploitation. Matthew Carter exploited four children in the United Kingdom aged 14 and under.

Harris said predators have exploited children in Newfoundland and Labrador as young as seven in online chat rooms.

She said parents need to tell children that just as they shouldn't speak to strangers on the street, they shouldn't talk to strangers online. 

Parents also need to know which websites and chat rooms their children are visiting as well as which apps and social media sites they're using. Harris recommended that parents get information online about the most dangerous sites and apps. 

That list can change, but Harris said chat rooms such as Chatstep, Omegle, and Chatroulette are known for their exploitative content. She also advised parents to find out what their children are sharing on the popular app Snapchat. 

Behaviour changes a warning sign

Harris warned parents to look out for behavioural changes that could suggest a problem, including a child who has become very possessive over their electronic devices and who has withdrawn from normal family and social activities.

If a young person doesn't want to go to class, it could mean that intimate images are circulating among schoolmates.

A child who spends all their time online could be in an unhealthy online relationship.  

As an internet child exploitation investigator, Harris spends much of her time using a computer. (CBC)

Harris said parents usually pay for smartphones and other devices, and there's nothing wrong with making sure that their kids are safe online. 

"You wouldn't let them go to a friend's house without knowing who the parents are, knowing what the activities are going to be and who's going to be there," said Harris. "Same thing for social media." 

She recommended making it clear to young people that they can always tell their parents about what they're encountering online. 

She even went so far as to say that if kids don't want to follow the parents' rules, parents should think about taking away the devices. 

Investigations time-consuming 

Fewer than 10 years ago, two police officers worked in the CFSEU online child exploitation unit. Now it's six, and Harris said it's still hard to keep up. 

Investigations are often tangled, crossing international jurisdictions. They generally take a minimum of six months, but can go up to 18 months. 

One of Harris's cases involved a man from Newfoundland and Labrador who is facing numerous charges, including sexual exploitation, sexual assault and making child pornography. There's a court-ordered ban on his name to protect the identity of the young child.

During trial, the judge dabbed her eyes as the evidence was presented. 

I find it very rewarding. I have children myself. And it's nice when you go home at the end of the day and feel like you really did make a difference.- Lisa Harris

Given the difficult nature of the job, not every police officer would welcome Harris's assignment. 

But she's done it for almost four years, and said she would welcome spending the rest of her career in the unit.

"I really enjoy this work," she said. "I find it very rewarding. I have children myself. And it's nice when you go home at the end of the day and feel like you really did make a difference." 

Harris said knowing that she's saved a young person is a good feeling. 

The officer said the prevalence of online sexual exploitation is no different in Newfoundland and Labrador from elsewhere in Canada. She said that despite the smaller communities here, children are no safer. 

About the Author

Ramona Dearing

Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.