‘Your children aren't immune from online grooming – trust me'

By Cheyenne O'Connor

Cheyenne O'Connor, peadophile hunter                                                             Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30708956)
Cheyenne O'Connor, peadophile hunter Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30708956)

MANY of you won’t want to think about this. You may even be the sort of person who actively ignores it because you can’t handle the truth.

But the sad reality is that the scale of child sexual exploitation and inappropriate behaviour online by adults – in its many forms – is beyond belief.

I say ‘many forms’ because, as we have seen recently, there is a huge spectrum of creepy online contacts, from purely inappropriate but legal behaviour right through to criminal acts.

The law is clear – if you are aged under 16 and receive unwanted sexualised messages from an adult online, then the sender could be committing a grooming offence.

However, if you are 16 (the legal age of consent for sex) or older, the sender would not be committing a criminal act.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Any grown man or woman who believes it is appropriate to message young girls in the way that has been shown this week should surely be asking themselves some serious questions.

The revelations about Deputy Kevin Pamplin’s messages to a 16-year-old girl seven years ago is one such case.

What he did was not illegal, but as the reaction on social media has demonstrated, it is frowned upon by the vast majority of people. And the fact that he is now a States Member (he wasn’t at the time) just makes it worse.

Anyone wrestling with the question of whether such behaviour is right or wrong (given that it is not illegal) should ask themselves this: Would you want this happening to your 16-year-old daughter?

What is the difference between a 15-year-old child and a 16-year-old child other than the law regarding the age of sexual consent? I would argue there is no difference at all.

Moving on to another common issue in the Island – online grooming. This offence is rapidly increasing and it is one we will never resolve unless we act now.

Men often think they are safe to carry out these vile acts online, where they are masked and hidden and, in their eyes, safe, in an online world with no real repercussions for their actions.

The online world is a gateway to vulnerable children who can be very easily groomed with the promise of things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get their hands on, such as alcohol, drugs, money and gifts.

I’ve said it time and time again: we need to do more. We as parents need to learn the basics of internet safety; we need to pass that knowledge on to our children.

Schools need to increase what is being taught so that all ages can understand that what may be happening online is wrong. We do not do enough and it is that simple.

In recent years I have become reasonably well known in Jersey after I began posing as a child online to catch those who are preying on our kids.

So far I have caught 19 men locally – and out of all of them, only one was really a dodgy character. The rest seemed like perfectly normal individuals just going about a perfectly normal life.

But their behaviour online – the words they used and how they used them – showed that they were predators.

Once they believed they had the child’s trust, everything else went out the window. They had no fear.

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One case that stands out is that of Robert Lupton-Le Masurier, who at the time was a teacher. He had asked a 14-year-old boy (it was me, really) to meet after grooming him online. He was even willing to go to this child’s home – and risk his mother or father coming back at any point – to have sex. Now if that doesn’t scream ‘no fear’, then I’m not sure what does. Fortunately he was dealing with me, not a real child. And fortunately, after I passed this information to the police, he got jailed.

The length some of these offenders go to when grooming children online truly scares me.

Some only take a few days before they want to meet, while for others it can take months.

One of the men I chatted to using my decoy account spent nine months sending completely normal messages. But everything changed in the last week when he started asking for sex. If it had been a real child, they would have certainly, by that point, built a bond and developed a relationship and a trust.

When I started doing this in March 2017, I expected it to be quite hard to catch anyone grooming a child online.

It did not take long to find out how easy it really was and how many of them there are over here.

Within the first day of deciding to do this and setting up a profile, I had a man send a message straight into my inbox and after finding out my age, he continued to talk sexually and arranged to meet.

That is how easy this is, and this is what parents need to realise. I have had many parents say to me over the years, ‘I didn’t think this would happen to my own’, and this is where we run into issues, when we think our children are safe.

Any child can become a victim very quickly because paedophiles are not stupid – they are probably some of the smartest people around (some, not all, of course). They know how it works; they know the right things to say and how to act to build the trust.

I’ve been raising awareness and hunting online sex offenders for a few years now, so I know a thing or two about how these cretinous sewer dwellers work.

It starts by them ‘liking’ a picture posted online, or they send a seemingly friendly message to the child’s inbox.

And our kids, who have been raised to talk more through text than any other medium, may see it as harmless. And why wouldn’t they? This guy seems nice, his profile seems legit and what harm can come from this, anyway? It’s not like he’s right here in front of me.

Next he’ll pay her a compliment because, remember, her photos are available for everyone to see. ‘Aren’t you beautiful?’ he’ll say. Or something similar.

Now at this point we would all shout at the top of our lungs that this would never happen to our children: they know better; they’re street smart, savvy, on point, wise beyond their years.

The same way you used to think that you knew better. Remember?

She replies: ‘Oh thanks, that’s an old pic lol, what you up too.’

The conversation will continue after this, and will, to her, seem very genuine and at times mundane or boring, so why raise it with anyone like mum or dad?

He’s just a nice guy who wants to chat. Right?

These monsters know that they must bide their time and build a relationship to earn the child’s trust to then manipulate them for their sick and twisted gratification. This is, by definition, grooming.

It’s not a short, sharp shock: it’s a long-winded coercion that can take weeks and sometimes months of manipulation before it exposes its true, ugly, predatory and sadistic colours.

And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, our kids (regardless of parenting or upbringing) just don’t have the tools or life experience to see what’s really going on here.

And, let’s be honest with ourselves, neither would we at that age. Remember?

A compliment from somebody older while your hormones are governing 90% of your life along with the famous ‘I know better attitude’ is a guaranteed recipe for disaster on every level.

I don’t blame the kids for being kids, nor do I think their curiosity is anything but a natural process of growing. They are not to blame here.

They’ve done nothing wrong, and neither have you (the parent).

The only ones to blame here are those who spend hours attempting to coerce and steal the innocence we spend every waking moment trying to preserve.

There are many warning signs to sexual abuse/grooming that parents need to be looking out for, including changes in behaviour, bed-wetting, spending time alone on their phones, spending more time away from home and lying about where they are.

Many of these could be down to other issues in childhood but they are crucial signs to look out for.

And if you are concerned please talk to your child by asking open questions and making sure you listen and let them know you believe everything they are saying, because, from personal experience, the only reason children do not come forward is fear of not being believed.

This Island has not set the best examples when it comes to these types of offences.

The mediocre sentences that are thrown at sex offenders get to us all, especially when we see that people dealing a plant often serve a longer sentence than those who ruin someone’s childhood, their adulthood and their family’s lives all at the same time.

We watch them walk out of jail care-free and into jobs and housing with no issues while any other small-time criminal will struggle to find employment. We see them come off the Sex Offenders Register usually five years later and continue their lives as if they have never done any wrong.

We know that the police have to sit and view huge amounts of indecent images and videos to build a case – only to see the offender who downloaded them get away with a jail sentence of just a few months.

The whole issue of child exploitation is baffling to me. I don’t understand why the sentences are so lenient.

I don’t understand why so many people think they can get away with it. And I don’t understand why they do it in the first place.

But as a society – as difficult as it is – we need to have a conversation. We need to talk about education, about what should be regarded as criminal behaviour and what sort of sentences we want to see handed down.

And parents – you need to have a conversation with your children. Don’t think they are immune to this. Trust me, they aren’t.

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