Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2013 7:30 am
By Gina Farthing For The News Virginian
Imagine being invited to an event where a TV star from the ‘70s and ‘80s will be; that’s what members of the Verona Moose Family Center got to do Jan. 16. Following a two-hour spaghetti supper fundraiser, Erik Estrada from the TV show, “CHiPs,” which aired from 1977 to 1983, visited with about 50 Moose members and their families.
Estrada’s appearance wasn’t about rekindling the entertainment side of his career. No, he came to help adult caretakers of children become more aware of the dangers that Internet usage could pose to young innocents and efforts within the law enforcement and civic community designed to minimize the threat – particularly from online predators known as pedophiles.
Law enforcement, which began battling Internet crimes against children years ago, realized their efforts were being outrun by online criminals and created a way to intercept efforts directed towards their prey.
Thus, Safe Surfin’ Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, was created in 2000 by a group of people including the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and Southern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, formerly known as Operation Blue Ridge Thunder, to educate potential victims.
“They realized they were never going to stop it by continually searching online,” said Robin Sundquist, a cofounder of Safe Surfin’.
It was time to educate children, parents, teachers, libraries, PTAs and others who provided care for children.
“It is so kids can learn not to be taken,” said Estrada. “With education they can’t be had.”
Child porn has been around forever, Sundquist said. “It used to be ordered through the mail from Eastern-bloc countries that sold nude pictures of children until the U.S. Postal Service worked to stop it and made it very difficult to get.
But today, she said, there are social networking sites, Skype, phone cameras, webcams and a lot of people making material in their own homes.
Even images posted by loving parents, for example, of their child’s first bath, can be retrieved from the Internet and used to create pornography.
“People need to be aware of how someone will react to what they post … it might spark something in them, even if the picture is innocent,” Sundquist said.
With the FBI estimating that “88 million [kids] are online in the U.S. alone and will visit one or more of the 40,000-plus chat rooms routinely visited by child sexual predators,” even safety software parents could install on home computers might not prevent the threat.
“Kids are so gullible,” she said, “and even if they can’t get on at home, they go to friends’ homes that might not have prevention software, or the library, or even their cell phones. The key is to educate them beforehand.
“According to the FBI, there is a 100-percent chance that your child will meet a sexual predator in a chat room and not even know it,” Sundquist said.
But education costs money, which is why Moose International entered into an agreement with Safe Surfin’ to help provide funding and publicity, said Eddie Worthy, a Moose member who travels with Estrada to events.
“Without the Moose, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of our donations have come from Moose members and the money goes towards education.”
Educational efforts include volunteers to speak to groups of people such as classes, community groups and civic organizations, businesses and more. Community events like Cop in a Box and EZID provide parents and caretakers opportunities to have children fingerprinted and photographed for future reference if an Amber Alert or missing child alert is needed. Funding has also gone to a film effort, which made its premier in Lynchburg over the weekend of Jan.19.
These are the reasons the Verona Moose Family Center held the event: to educate, to raise funds and to help members’ children get identified. At the center that night, Moose members donated two checks to Safe Surfin’ totally $1,500. Through previous donations, they also had provided the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department with an EZID system, which was used after the dinner.
“Luckily, we’re fortunate enough that we haven’t had to use EZID,” said Cpl Derek Almarode, of the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department. “And we’ve done several hundred children.”
The film “Finding Faith” is about a girl named Faith who, based on true-life events, was abducted by a cell phone contact she thought was innocent. The faith-based film stars Estrada as a sheriff, which he also is in real life, with Bedford County.
“’We can’t just focus on Internet safety now. Technology is changing and child predators are always looking for new ways to hurt children,’ Brown stated,” on the film’s website. “This story is a wake-up call for all parents to begin monitoring their children’s cell phones. The situation emphasizes the importance of parental involvement.”
Therefore, more education and awareness is needed.
“There is only one trainer currently,” Worthy said. “He went to three states and gave classes to more than 5,000 kids. We’re hoping to hire professionals to do the classes.”
The estimated cost for those professionals, Worthy said, is about $1 million. That is in addition to costs for specialized equipment such as the$2,500 EZID program, the $3,500 Cop in a Box program, free presentations to schools and free “Finding Faith” showings to be held at 200 churches nationwide.
“People should go to the SafeSurfin.org for more information regarding volunteering, training and holding student events. Oh, and we definitely take donations,” said Sundquist. “We’re all volunteers right now.”