Turnout was disappointing at the Community Conversation, organized by the Abilene Police Department’s Cyber Crimes Unit, to educat parents about cyber threats to kids. But officials will keep trying to engage parents in protecting their kids online.
Since its inception in 2016, the Abilene Police Department’s Cyber Crimes unit has targeted predators looking to exploit children in Abilene. The first year they focused on training, netting just 5 arrests. Then next year they arrested 24 suspects. Last year they arrested 52, and as of August 8th, the Cyber Crimes Unit has arrested 51 people so far this year.
Detective Chris Milliorn says they suggest parents not give children smart phones. But at the Community Conversation he described one case in which a predator had found a way to contact a girl on a watch device that had no apps or online access. It just allowed phone calls and had a spin-dial texting function. “Really anything that someone can communicate with especially online, that opens them up, is going to be a potential risk for a child.” Milliorn said.
The detectives know most kids do have smart phones and chat online in video games. And they acknowledge that kids know more about how they work than their parents. But they say parents can’t give up.
Rhonda Florence was surprised to learn that Snapchat has a “For Your Eyes Only” function that kids set up and password protect. She and her husband Winston talk to their kids about the dangers and try to monitor what they’re doing online. “I might go check my son’s phone, maybe every couple of weeks,” said Winston Florence. “Sometimes he’ll start sweating, and I’ll go through it.”
There’s room for a thousand in the sanctuary of Southern Hills Church of Christ. But just a fraction of the seats were filled for the Community Conversation. And before the event even started officers removed one audience member, a registered sex offender, who had shown up to hear the presentation.
Rod Pruett, Safe and Effective School Service Coordinator for Region 14, wasn’t surprised by the low turnout. “I think parents genuinely care. And I think they’re overwhelmed with activity,” Pruett said. “I don’t think they’re apathetic. I think they’re busy.” Pruett presents on cyberbullying at schools around Region 14, and says they may have 500 children hear the presentation during the day, but only see five parents show up for their session that night.
In June, the Abilene Police Department announced the results of a sting operation that lead to the arrests of more than a dozen people who had sexual communication with people they thought were minors, and had arranged to meet them. At that time Chief Stan Standridge said Abilene cannot arrest its way out of this problem, and they need parents and community members to help protect kids.
By the end of last night’s meeting Chief Standridge was working on a new plan to reach parents with the message. He can’t afford to pull his detectives away from their work to repeat last night’s presentation. But community members are offering their help. He says his department will thoroughly vet volunteers. “They’ll do extensive criminal background checks. And those who pass, we bring them in, and we’ll spend an entire day teaching them how to teach the community.” Standridge says his three detectives can teach 20 volunteers who can then extend the impact of their message.
The chief will work with the Cyber Crimes Unit in the coming weeks to flesh out the details, and empower community members to help them protect Abilene’s most vulnerable citizens, it’s children.
The Cyber Crimes Unit recommends parents use this website to find more information about online safety as well as thorough descriptions of parent monitoring apps.