No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Maggie. Maggie is employed by a federal law enforcement agency. Their mission is dedicated to protecting children from online predators. Maggie is a special agent who devotes her time to investigating, apprehending, and prosecuting criminals who target and victimize kids of all ages.
G: The world is not a safe place for kids. Your job is to protect them. How did it come about that you ended up in this field?
M: Every day children of all ages are being sexually abused and exploited all over the world. I have been in law enforcement for 15 years. I started in financial investigations. Bank fraud and wire fraud, that sort of thing. When my kids were ready to go to school I asked to go to the child exploitation unit. Our priority is to conduct child exploitation investigations, safeguard children, rescue victims, and ultimately prosecute the predators. Most of the activity, especially sexual exploitation of children, happens primarily via the internet.
G: We parents all know this is happening on some level, but it’s still so hard to hear and think about.
M: Yes, the internet is borderless, so the crime happens everywhere at all times. We work closely our local federal law enforcement agencies and with others to stop it.
G: What was it like for you to make the shift away from financial investigations to child exploitation investigation?
M: Shocking. It was shocking. I had no idea how many children are being exploited every day. The predators are all types of walks of life. It’s your professional. Your engineer. Your police man. It’s the teachers and the priests. I have investigated just about any profession that you can think of. Especially with the advancing technology, the chat rooms, and the online gaming these predators have overwhelming access to kids. We have a cyber tip line and we receive multiple tips daily about victims, child-molestation, and child trafficking.
G: Wow. With all of this fast-moving technology how do you stay ahead of the curve or do you even feel like you can?
M: It is constantly evolving. We try to stay on top of it. We work very closely with service providers that are law enforcement-friendly, but some of these services are located overseas and so the investigation takes a lot longer. It can be frustrating. These apps are being created every single day.
Online gaming, for example Minecraft and Fortnight, they are able to listen and talk to each other, and so these people groom these children. They invest time into the relationship. They friend these kids. They give them attention and encourage them to share about themselves. It happens slowly over time. In one case I investigated the relationship started when the child was nine, but the sexual activity didn’t start until they were 13 or 14 because then they felt comfortable with the predator. In most cases, it just doesn’t happen overnight.
G: It is so hard as parents to really see the full picture of what is happening with all of this online gaming. Would you say that most parents are unaware of how this happens?
M: Parents are not aware at all of what is happening. The perpetrators can sometimes be famous gamers, people that the kids look up to. Maybe they have a huge following or YouTube channels for gaming. They friend kids and start exchanging messages. Then they start exchanging other information. A lot of times it involves the victims taking and sharing sexual pictures. We work very closely with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to stop the distribution of these images of the victims. A database is created there for each victim to flag if the content is shared elsewhere.
G: You go through the entire process with your victims from investigation to prosecution. What is a typical length of time for a perpetrator to be prosecuted?
M: Having children has made me feel a sense of urgency about each victim. The investigations can sometimes feel like they take a long time. It varies from case to case. I have to work with attorneys and turn things over to prosecutors. There are status hearings to go through. Sometimes it is a lengthy process and sometimes it happens pretty quickly. Sometimes we are rescuing a child within 24 hours of an image being posted.
G: Is there a typical age range of the victims?
M: The victims are infants all the way through the teenage years. All children of all ages should be made aware. Parents need to find a way to talk to their kids at every stage about what is appropriate to show, to share and to talk about online and elsewhere. I don’t think that parents are aware of how accessible their children are with these online games and apps. They just think their kids are playing a game in the basement with their friends and that they are safe. We aren’t really safeguarding our children.
G: How has doing this job shaped the way you parent?
M: I am overprotective for sure. I trust few people and I always know the parents when I let them go on playdates. I monitor closely what they are allowed to play at home. My kids don’t have phones yet, but if they did, I would definitely install something where I can monitor their activity. It’s difficult.
G: How do you mentally stay in the game to do this job?
M: It’s heartbreaking. But it’s motivating. It gets me up every morning. I love the group of people that I work with. We have a great team and we support each other. When I come home at the end of a stressful day, I just enjoy taking my kids to soccer practice, or just being around them. Seeing my children happy and healthy gets me through the hard parts. I am very good at balancing and separating my work and my home life. What I do is emotionally draining and urgent, but I love it. So when I am not working, I just try to enjoy going for walks, being at home, and just being with my family.
It’s a priority to save these children. To arrest and see successful prosecutions and to put away these predators, hopefully for a long time. When I come home I feel fulfilled. I feel like I am helping my children and hopefully many other children with a better and brighter future. It’s comforting knowing that you’ve helped someone and rescued them from this nightmare they are in.
G: How do you envision your kids seeing you and what you do when they are old enough to understand your job fully?
M: I hope to pass on the idea that hard work is motivation. And I hope that one day when I tell them what I do that they are proud of their mother and what I have done.
For more information on how to protect your kids from online predators, visit netsmartz.org