Coral Springs teen, mom work to stop online predators
Nicole had barely turned 12 when a 29-year-old man crept into her bedroom.His entry point was her PC. His ticket was AOL Instant Messenger. His method was to befriend her through online chats, lure her from home and molest her.It took a month for him to accomplish it all.That happened nearly four years ago. Though the predator was arrested, and police say he confessed, he is a fugitive.Now, Nicole and her mother seek their own kind of justice. They want to make sure the mistakes made by prosecutors at the time — allowing Waqas "Michael" Rehman to flee the country before being brought to justice — won't happen again. And they want Nicole's story to be a lesson for others.Out of their Coral Springs home, Nicole and her mother, Jaemi Levine, whose last name is different from her daughter's, have launched their version of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Theirs is called MAP, Mothers Against Predators.They are pressing Florida legislators to require specialized training for police and prosecutors who go after Internet predators. And they hope to change the way children are taught to deal with criminals who stalk via computer screens."He got me to trust him," said Nicole, now 15.The South Florida Sun-Sentinel doesn't usually identify minors who have been victimized but is honoring Nicole and her mother's request to do so to raise awareness of the issue. "Too many victims feel they have to hide in shadows or shame," said Levine. "We put our faces out there to protect other children."On the surface, Nicole is a typical kid. She has a giggly laugh, is prone to sarcastic remarks and hounds her mom for what she wants. These days what she wants most is freedom from her mother's overprotective watch.But talk to Nicole about what happened and her mood darkens. Quiet and polite by nature, a scowl washes over a reddened face and she tends to swear. She is angry, still a little scared. Yet she's determined to change the world, the online world, which connects so many vulnerable kids to hunters like Rehman."They tell kids 'You're so sexy,' and 'I want to meet you' when they mean 'I want to have sex with you.' It's disgusting," Nicole said. "It's horrible."She spends little time online now. She prefers her cell phone to stay in touch with family and friends. She appeared on several television shows, including America's Most Wanted, after the crime occurred. Because of that, students at her high school recognize her.Some have asked if it was fun to be on TV. Some teased her about what happened, in that way that high school kids can sometimes be brutally mean. But some have confided that they, too, were contacted inappropriately by adults online, and ask her for advice. "Those are the kids I care about," Nicole said. "I say tell an adult. Tell police."When Nicole was victimized, she was into Care Bears, Barbie dolls and learning to use her new computer. Along with her three siblings, she convinced her mother, a single parent, that it made sense for each to have a computer in their bedrooms. Convenience and a quiet place to study was the argument.Her foray online began with setting up an AOL profile and posting a series of photos of her and her friends at a pool party. They included shots of her in a yellow swimsuit."They were not provocative," said Nicole. "I was 12. How could they be?"Within a few days, she received an instant message from Rehman. "Hi. Looking for a friend. Wanna chat?" She was flattered and didn't tell her parents. "I didn't want to get grounded," she said.Nicole was 12, but her profile claimed she was 15. Rehman said he was 18, 11 years younger than his real age, according to police reports. Only a few days passed before he professed love for her."I was fighting with my dad," recalled Nicole, whose parents are divorced. "He said my dad was wrong for fighting with me. He told me he loved me. I thought, 'Wow,' he's real."
Rehman was real, all right — real dangerous. Police say he convinced Nicole to meet him twice and molested her both times. After the second incident, she told her mom."I went from a Martha Stewart mom, a Brownie leader, to someone who now knows a lot about online dangers and is determined to make sure this never happens to another child again," said Levine.Statistics indicate that MAP, with its two dozen members, all parents of South Florida teens, has an uphill battle. More than 77 million children regularly use the Internet. Approximately six out of 10 teens ages 13 to 17 have profiles on social-networking sites, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One in seven report being solicited by predators.Fortunately, Florida is on the forefront in attempts to apprehend cyber criminals targeting children.
Attorney General Bill McCollum has made the law-enforcement campaign a central cause in his administration. In the past year, his office has conducted teaching seminars at middle and high schools across the state, reaching more than 65,000 students. During the presentations, more than 3,700 students told officials that they had either been sexually solicited by an adult online or sent pornography — both of which are felony crimes.McCollum also has launched a special law enforcement division — the Child Predator CyberCrime Unit — to investigate and arrest adults who prey on children online or traffic in child pornography.The Legislature last year approved state funding to operate seven offices statewide with 56 full-time investigators, prosecutors and victim advocates. But budget cuts have forced plans for two of those offices (Fort Myers and Tallahassee) to be put on hold and jeopardized two others ( Tampa and Pensacola). Only three offices are up and running (Jacksonville, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale) with half the staffing approved by lawmakers.Yet, in just 2 1/2 years, the unit has made 63 arrests of alleged criminals charged with creating, possessing or distributing child porn, or sexually soliciting children online and traveling to carry out the crimes.The state effort is commendable. But, it needs to be expanded. Funding needs to be preserved and eventually increased.Spend time on sites like AOL, MySpace and Facebook, and you'll get a taste of what law enforcement is up against. For a predator, these sites can provide shopping lists of children, with public profiles that often detail ages, names, home cities and other personal information. The profiles may be meant for friends, but predators infiltrate them with ease.Just as Rehman did with Nicole's.MAP's intentions are solid, but the group is understaffed, underfunded and not well-publicized. Levine attemptsto recruit members through home meetings and handing out flyers in public. She also is developing plans for public meetings with the attorney general's office.MAP's core mission is to educate parents and children about what to do when they're approached. Some educational campaigns encourage children to turn off their computers when contacted by anyone suspicious or to end communications. Nicole and her mother want children and parents to be more proactive. They want children to SCREAM: Save, Copy and Report, Every Arrest Matters.Authorities are warming up to the SCREAM concept."We encourage children and parents to report the incident to the CyberTipline with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children," said Maureen Horkan, director of the state's CyberCrime units, adding, "Certainly, if they want to do more by saving and copying, it is helpful."Levine wants more from authorities too."We need more than a separate state police force; we need a separate judicial system," said Levine, adding that drug courts serve as a model of what she is talking about. Short of that, she calls for mandatory cyber crime training for all county and state prosecutors, police and judges.Rehman, a Pakistani national, was released from a Broward County jail because of missteps by the state. He was set free despite confessing to six felony counts of crimes against a child between the age of 12 and 16, according to police reports. He skipped three court hearings before an arrest warrant was issued.That day was Dec., 20, 2004, the same day Rehman boarded a flight to Jordan."A mistake was made," said Dennis Siegel, a supervisor of the state attorney's Sex Crimes/Child Abuse Unit in Broward County. "We filed the case too late to require him to post a bond in order to be released." Siegel said his office has made changes to ensure the same thing won't happen again.Changes after the fact offer little comfort to Nicole and her mom."I know he's out there. I know he knows where I live," said Nicole. "Sometimes I want to forget what happened and move on. But I also don't want him to hurt another little girl."Nicole, Levine and MAP are the underdogs in this battle. The cyber stalkers have the advantage now. But Nicole is willing to put her pink Care Bears backpack aside, along with her pain, and give up what's left of her childhood years to fight this fight.The least we can do is line up behind her.Daniel Vasquez can be reached at email@example.com, 954-356-4219 or 561-243-6600, ext. 4219.
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