Sex offenders on social media highlight flaws in enforcement

Published: Feb. 1, 2019 at 5:49 PM AKST
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Friday, an InvestigateTV story revealed sex offenders are creating Facebook accounts — something that's against the platform's policy. Profiles reported to Facebook were removed, but the inquiry showed it's not a failsafe against the presence of known predators on social media.

Experts in the field of child and cyber safety told KTUU the problem extends beyond Facebook and individuals on sex offender registries.

KTUU conducted random checks of registered Alaska sex offenders against Facebook accounts and found some matches.

"It does not surprise me that there are sex offenders on Facebook. I wish it did, but it doesn't. There's sex offenders on all forms of social media," Rachel Gernat, a former prosecutor turned consultant told KTUU.

"As far as whether or not the term 'convicted' makes a person more dangerous or less dangerous to a child is not the deciding factor. It is the fact that they are a sex offender. It's the fact that they are someone who preys on children that makes them dangerous and not whether or not they've been caught," Gernat said.

In December 2014, an Anchorage-based teacher's aid had used Facebook to collect images of his students. The next year, Daniel Brown was sentenced in federal court for child pornography crimes.

Although the images of the Anchorage students were non-pornographic, they were used as conversation pieces among traders of pornography, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Social media is increasingly integrated into daily life, and there is a constant stream of new platforms.

"I don't think anything is 100%. There will always be a way for offenders to find a way around something," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jolene Goeden, who's spent fifteen years working child pornography cases, child enticement cases, child sex trafficking cases -- any crime involving a child.

Goeden and Gernat emphasized that many offenders haven't been caught, so relying on a registry to screen contacts is only one prong of defense. The others require paying attention to who your children are talking with and keeping tabs on their devices.

They recommend families talk with each other openly and often; that parents establish and enforce rules around the use of technology, including having PINs and passcodes, and checking which apps are being used; and keeping phones out of bedrooms overnight.

"As a parent, it is your job to keep your children safe, and if that and if that means in your child's eyes that you have to invade their privacy a little bit, I think it's your obligation as a parent to try to keep your kids safe, and that's something I always suggest that to parents," Goeden said.

"It's a really good reminder to all of us that we need to continue to be vigilant," Gernat said.