By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Christal Martin thought nothing about letting her 12-year-old daughter sleep over at a friend’s slumber party.
She knew the girls and her parents and thought her daughter would be totally safe. Little did she know that the dangers awaiting her daughter weren’t coming from anyone in the house.
It started with a conversation with a stranger on the website Omegle, a site that randomly pairs people together for one-on-one video chats. It led to her daughter being victimized online by more than a dozen predators who had used the internet to groom her for future contact.
Martin’s daughter is not alone as online predators continue to be a growing problem across the state, according to law enforcement and various agencies.
After attending the slumber party, the behavior of Martin’s daughter rapidly began to change, Martin said. Suddenly, she was acting secretive and hiding her phone screen when her parents looked over her shoulder, something they chalked up to teenage moodiness.
Not long after, her daughter attended another birthday sleepover with her cousin, who was just a few months younger than her, and some other girls. It was the cousin who later shared her concerns with her own mother and Martin about how the teen had repeatedly kept going into the bathroom with her phone and chatting with a guy claiming to be their age but whose deep voice sounded much older.
Because his screen was purposely blurred, however, it was impossible to see him clearly.
Martin’s daughter didn’t heed her cousin’s warnings, insisting that this guy was a friend who had complimented her beauty and told her how much he loved her.
When Martin learned about her daughter’s online activity, she took away her phone and iPad and found nude frontal photos and videos of her daughter masturbating, all of which she’d shared with between 20 to 30 different “friends” online.
Horrified, Martin packed her daughter down to the Green River Police Department, where she turned over her devices for help in tracking the men down. The police, however, weren’t able to locate the men’s IP addresses because they were using an app that concealed their physical location.
Without that information, they told her there wasn’t anything they could do, and given her behavior, her daughter was treated more like a juvenile delinquent than a victim. Meanwhile, Martin’s daughter, furious with her mother for turning the men in, accessed another device to warn them and apologize for her mother’s behavior.
No matter how hard Martin tried to protect her daughter, the girl was able to hold secret conversations with the men by using friends’ old phones or creating new email addresses to keep her mom off her tail. It was at this point that Martin realized the power of grooming and how online predators are able to control and manipulate their victims. It scared Martin as her daughter continued to contact and trying to sneak out to meet the men.
Distraught, Martin finally enrolled her daughter in a mental health treatment facility because there were no local resources available to help.
Today, at 16, Martin’s daughter has come a long way. Not only will she be graduating from high school a year early, she’s also become an outspoken advocate for other teens.
“She’s become a beacon of hope for other kiddos,” Martin told Cowboy State Daily on Friday, “but it’s been a long road.”
For her part, Martin started the non-profit Sweetwater Against Trafficking in 2017 to educate the community about the dangers of grooming and human trafficking and to provide services for victims. In recent months, the nonprofit has helped five survivors of trafficking and recently took part in a prostitution sting that led to the arrest of four Wyoming men.
Her daughter helps her with training, but for the most part, Martin said, has taken it on her own to help educate and counsel her peers and encourage them to report suspicious activity.
Looking back, there are lots of things Martin would have done differently to help her daughter. That’s the hardest for her to get over, the guilt of not having protected her.
“Even today I still cry about it,” she said, noting that her mission now is to help other parents understand the dangers on the internet while also helping educate parents – and herself – about how to build a support system in which a child feels comfortable coming to talk to them without them getting them upset.
Teens will outsmart adults when it comes to technology, she said, so parents have to figure out their vulnerabilities and educate themselves to help fill the void while also encouraging their children to establish boundaries to protect themselves.
The process of grooming typically takes anywhere from six to nine months, according to the American Psychological Association, with some studies showing a bond can form with a victim in as little as 18 minutes.
And as Martin learned, predators are experts at exploiting the victim’s vulnerabilities for their own intent.
Such cases of “grooming” are rising rapidly in Wyoming, particularly in Casper, where the police department issued a public service announcement on its Facebook book page this week warning of a rise in sexual grooming between adults and adolescents.
Due to the laws governing juvenile sexual crimes, Casper Police Department Public Information Officer Rebekah Ladd could not provide specifics about any of the city’s recent cases, other than to say that the majority of sexual assault reports they are seeing can typically be traced back to an initial contact on social media. The predators are both from inside and outside of the state.
It’s definitely a rising problem in Casper, she said, and one that’s preventable.
“It’s sad when you talk to victims after the fact because their lives are typically changed forever as a result of the assault,” she said, “and in most cases, there’s a clear point where if an adult had known, they could have stopped the meet up.”
Like Martin, Ladd said she thinks the best way for parents to protect their children is to establish trusted relationships with them so that they feel comfortable showing parents what they’re doing on their phone, which is especially important as the children might not understand what’s being done to them.
Terri Markham, cofounder of Uprising, a nonprofit in Sheridan focused on human trafficking education and awareness, said her group is seeing a lot of online child exploitation cases because of her training and interaction with law enforcement agencies across the state.
In a recent training session in which police officers posed as minors on various social media platforms, Markham said it was disheartening to see how quickly the men responded when an underage girl’s photo was posted.
“Children are extremely vulnerable, especially online, where predators can pretend to be anyone they want,” Markham said.
Markham also applauded the investment that state law enforcement agencies are putting into the effort of bringing down online predators, adding that many of her training sessions with police departments lead to arrests.
While conducting human trafficking presentations in high schools around Wyoming, Markham said almost 45% of the students attending reported that they have been engaged in some form of communication online that has made them feel uncomfortable.
“I always tell parents that now we have predators inside our own homes because they are on the other side of all the screens and devices,” she said. “Wherever kids are, predators are there too.”
For more information about how to protect children from predators and about human trafficking in general, see casperpolice.org/keepkidssafeonline and https://uprisingwyo.org.