Monday, July 28, 2008

The sad and ugly reality of the Internet

Did you know it may take just minutes for a sexual predator to solicit a child online and then try to set up a meeting date and place to consummate the crime?

That’s the ugly reality of today’s Internet, according to two women who work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force based at the Portsmouth (NH) Police Department visited yesterday by members of my New England chapter of Sisters in Crime (SINC).

We not only toured the station, sat in a cruiser and peeked into empty interrogation rooms, we also heard “The Real Stories of Women in Law Enforcement” from Captain Janet Champlin and fellow SINC NE member Felicia Donovan, who authors the Black Widow Agency mystery series when she’s not acting as the police department’s Information Systems Manager (and being an expert on cyber crime and computer forensics.)

Everyone knows police work isn’t pretty. But some of what we learned yesterday was downright sickening. I was already aware of a study that found one in every seven children under 18 has been sexually solicited online. But until yesterday, I didn’t realize how true it is that sexual predators don’t need to hang around playgrounds in dark trench coats anymore when it’s so easy to find victims from the comfort of their computers.

The Portsmouth PD’s task force has investigators trained to pose as children in chat rooms and identify predators who solicit children to engage in sex acts. Captain Champlin told us there are so many pedophiles online that a police officer posing as a child visiting a chat room will not only be solicited to engage in a sexual act within 5 or 10 minutes, but the predator also is likely to establish a time and meeting place – all in less than 15 minutes.

"It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Champlin, who oversees the task force.

Donovan adds that some predators will “groom” the child over time, sending e-mails and text messages, gifts and web cam images in the hope the child will “perform” for them. This grooming goes on without a custodial adult’s knowledge.

The danger is so great that parents who want to keep their children safe from online sexual solicitation should not allow them to have computers in their bedrooms where adults can’t easily monitor them, say the women. Champlin says giving a child open computer access is as dangerous as handing them the keys to a car without a license.

Both women also strongly believe that no child should have a web cam (small cameras whose images can be accessed using the Web and instant messaging). Predators often urge children to send identifying or sexual images via web cams, or send sexually oriented images to the children this way.

Unlike the “catch a predator” TV show segments, police cannot aggressively direct the online contact with a suspected predator. All of the discussion related to criminal activity must be initiated by the pedophile. Even then, it’s all too easy to find adults waiting to sexually victimize children.

Many were victims, themselves, says Champlin, and often have backgrounds that include incidents generally viewed as strong indicators of sexual or other physical abuse: bed-wetting, fire-starting and/or torturing animals.

Unfortunately, they then go on to victimize children and there are not enough police officers in the world to catch all the pedophiles lurking on the Internet.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Considering moderation....

I suspect that when the organizers of the New England Crime Bake mystery conference invited me to moderate a panel of short story authors, they had no idea how much of my life has prepared me for this task.

My job in November will be to introduce four short story writers and ask them stimulating questions that prompt answers to enthrall and educate the audience of a few hundred mystery writers and fans. I'll also try to make sure the authors get equal time (and no riots break out).

This moderating honor comes partly because I won the conference’s short story award last year and another story has been selected for "Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers" to be published by Level Best Books this fall. But other things in my background also make me a good candidate:

· I have experience dealing with disputes about fiction. I once moderated a vicious argument between my children over the location of an invisible stop sign.
· When I was briefly class president in 5th grade, I wasn't afraid to use a ruler to rap a classmate’s knuckles for speaking out of turn. (You can understand why my reign was brief.)
· I also know better than to ask anyone what they plan to do with their book royalties. When I posed that question to US House Speaker Jim Wright years ago, I never anticipated his response might contribute to his downfall.
· I’ve spent untold hours observing Congress, the NH Legislature and local governing bodies. I learned that some politicians use the term “distinguished colleague” when they aren’t being nice. And if they say “with all due respect,” what follows can be downright nasty. If I hear those words, I’m prepared for what’s coming.
· And I've had experience dealing with bad-tempered people. I raised two teenagers. Plus, I’ve taught classes on how to stop smoking. Believe me, there’s no way a mystery audience could ever be as cranky as a bunch of smokers trying to quit.

I believe I'm ready for this wonderful opportunity. But I'll be looking for that old ruler just in case.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dance like nobody’s watching….

This is a wonderful antidote for a bad day. Invest 4 1/2 minutes watching this video and I guarantee you’ll be smiling when you see a little of what Matt Harding did in 14 months and 42 countries. If you’ve already seen it—over 6 million people have—watch it again.

If Matt came to your town and asked you to dance in his video, would you do it? If you answered “no,” maybe you need “Matt dancing” more than you realize.
I think we all could use some fun in our lives, don’t you?
Go do your own “Matt dance” and see if it helps.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Only in New Hampshire, USA

We’ve met the next president of the United States and have a photo on the wall to prove it.

I love being able to say that. Republicans usually narrow their eyes and look skeptical. The Dems also appear doubtful, especially when I confide their guy once put me in a virtual headlock and even called to chat for five minutes.

Such are the joys of living in New Hampshire: No matter who wins in November, Husband Frank and I can brag we’ve met the next leader of the free world. Maybe his vice president, too.

I am especially appreciative of this as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence. After all, how many ordinary citizens get to meet the king or queen of England?

In America, and especially New Hampshire, we have opportunities to meet the folks running for president. If you’ve heard the joke about the NH voter who was asked if he liked a certain candidate and responded: “I don’t know – I’ve only talked to him three times,” I assure you it’s no joke for some of us.

NH may not have as many residents as Philadelphia, but we do have a law requiring our presidential primary to be first in the nation. That means every candidate wants our vote – and wants it bad.

Although some NH citizens resent hearing their telephone ring non-stop and the deluge of campaign literature, Frank and I are such fans of free entertainment that we have no qualms about taking advantage of the opportunities -- or the free food and drink at the better events. This round, I also wanted my picture taken with every candidate. But with at least 16 presidential wannabes tromping through NH, the quest became a little tiresome and I limited my photo-stalking to the leaders.

I first met Barack Obama in December 2006 when he came to promote “The Audacity of Hope.” During his “reading” (that’s what they called the pre-primary foray into frigid and overwhelmingly white New Hampshire), I watched him nervously moving his foot back and forth behind the podium he was gripping
. A year later, there were no such signs of unease as he, wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey electrified a crowd of 8,500 at the largest political rally in NH history. In between these events, I saw him at a private gathering and two rallies.

I also unexpectedly encountered him during one of his downtown campaign strolls and confronted him about my inability to make contact for a story Frank and I were writing for the 22 million readers of AARP Bulletin. At one point, he put his arm around my neck and turned me toward the cameras chronicling his every step. It felt like a headlock. But a week later, he telephoned me as promised and we talked for five minutes about caring for older relatives.

Ironically, the sidewalk encounter occurred the same day we met John McCain. Frank was interviewing GOP candidates for the AARP story so we headed to a backyard party where he’d been promised a “walk and talk” between the point that McCain finished addressing the crowd and national media, to when he got into a waiting van.
The task turned complicated when the senator was repeatedly interrupted by admirers. But at least I snapped a photo of the interview.
It’s not easy to write down a candidate’s comments while you’re walking. I had to stop during my walk-and-talk with Hillary one rainy afternoon. Fortunately, she stopped, too, but I can’t forget that she didn’t share her umbrella – until it was time to take the picture.

I’ve posted our presidential photos below. Have you ever seen a president or candidate in person? Which ones would you have liked to have met?