For one Rusk County mother it was like something out of a nightmare.
“I went to the computer to check my Facebook and my daughter had left her account logged in and on her private messages,” she said. “Before I could log her out, I noticed a conversation that had taken place the night before […] I couldn’t believe what I saw.”
The mother, who asked that her name not be published in the interest of her children’s privacy, said she saw an exchange of “an extremely sexual nature” between her daughter and a boy, purportedly in her class.
“I was stunned, frightened, and angry,” she said. “I called the school to get the contact information of the boy’s parents.”
However the school was unable to identify the other student involved. The mother discovered that, not only was the “boy” not a student at her daughter’s school, but that he didn’t exist.
The relationship, the mother explained, first began when her daughter got an innocent “Hi!” text message just a few months back.
Under Penal Code Section 33.021, the Texas statute for online solicitation of a minor defines the term “minor” to include any individual who represents that he or she is younger than 17 years old or any person whom the defendant believes to be under the age of 17. A second degree felony, online solicitation of a minor is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Several local law enforcement officials spoke with the Henderson Daily News about the rise in sexting, cyber-bullying, and online solicitation of minors. Each of the men, who are themselves parents, stressed the importance of mothers and fathers being true “guardians” of their children’s’ online presence.
Fourth District Judge J. Clay Gossett said that, while his court takes these types of cases with the utmost seriousness, the best line of defense for area youth against online solicitation begins with parents who are “proactive.”
“Parents need to be attentive, they need to monitor, they need to be involved in their children’s’ lives,” he said. “This type of crime doesn’t occur in a ‘vacuum’ and it illustrates how important it is for parents to be vigilant against sexual predators, and all the ways they can get access to their children.”
“Once you text a photo or post an image to a site, even though you might delete it, it’s still archived by websites,” he said. “Plus, if someone out there downloaded that image before you deleted it, you’re at their mercy as far as it being deleted. So, conceivably, it could last forever.”
And if that image is of a juvenile in a state of undress, there’s no telling where it could end up.
“Once you put it out there, it’s available to anyone who wants it,” Sweeney said. “What the child might think is just an innocent photo between themselves and a boyfriend or girlfriend, could end up in the hard drive of a child pornographer.”
Rusk County Sheriff Jeff Price echoed Sweeney’s sentiment, adding that parents must also apprize themselves with how quickly the technology changes and how children are much quicker to adapt to any limitations their parents might impose.
“Children, teenagers especially, are quick to adjust to the technology — much quicker than their parents, most of the time. So parents have to stay abreast, not only of what their children are up to, but how the technology is evolving,” he said. “Right now, a smartphone is basically just a computer that you can carry in your pocket. So the dangers that are available when using a computer are the same as when your children are using a smartphone.”
Rusk County District Attorney Micheal Jimerson agreed, adding that while new legislation proposed could help, the greatest hindrance to these types of crimes are attentive parents and family members.
“Even in a wonderful, blessed place like Henderson there exist predators laying in wait for our children […] that is not an overstatement,” he said. “We have to partner together to protect the least able to defend themselves.”
For one Rusk County mother, these are indeed wise words of counsel.
“I’m thankful that [the incident with her daughter] was discovered before it could escalate to where this person could do something to her physically,” she said. “But you can believe we’re going to be watching things a lot closer from now on.”