ARLINGTON — The single father showered his daughter and her two 9-year-old friends with lavish gifts, including horses, clothes and electronics.But when his daughter hosted the girls for sleepover parties at his Arlington home, her father took the 9-year-olds downstairs to the living room, one at a time, and sexually molested them with his hands or a sex toy.The girls finally told someone, in February 2012. The man is serving two life sentences in prison.“They had allowed the abuse to go on to keep their friendship,” Arlington detective Garth Savage said. “The girls finally decided they didn’t want to go through it anymore.”The young girls were among 323 confirmed victims of child sexual abuse in Arlington last year. Arlington’s crimes against children unit not only investigates outcries of sexual and physical abuse, reported kidnappings and child abandonment or neglect, but also has a special task force that uses technology to proactively track down would-be child predators.The future of the task force, however, remains unclear. Funding runs out at the end of the month.The Crimes Against Children unit will not know until September whether the task force positions will be funded as part of the regular Police Department budget, said Sgt. Ricardo Lucero. Budget discussions for fiscal year 2014 begin in August.In at least 90 percent of cases, a child is victimized by a family member or someone who has been able to gain the family’s trust through months of careful grooming. And technology — especially cellphones and Internet-based video games — is making it easier for sexual predators to prey on children, Savage said.That’s why Arlington police and Tarrant County child advocates are stressing the importance for parents, guardians and community leaders to watch for signs of abuse, monitor those with whom their children interact and teach them about how to protect themselves in both the physical and virtual world from inappropriate contact and communication.“The grooming process was more difficult [before technology]. You had to build trust with the parents and the people in that family because you needed to be alone with the child,” Savage said.“Now it’s been all erased with the Internet. You have that contact immediately, and you can start that grooming immediately.”Electronic predatorsTwo years ago, Arlington used a $500,000 federal grant to launch a Child Sexual Predator Task Force, which investigates online offenses including solicitation of a minor, child pornography and indecency, through means such as cellphone apps, websites and Internet-based video gaming.Since January 2012, the task force has investigated 148 cases, made 31 arrests, filed 34 cases with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, with several cases pending, Lucero said.“These cases have exploded over the past few years due to the advancement in technology and kids utilizing that technology,” Lucero said.The four-member task force includes a computer forensics examiner who retrieves data from phones and other electronic media. Detectives use software that allows them to monitor which IP addresses in Arlington have downloaded known images of child pornography, which is illegal.Savage, who works on the task force, said investigators also pose as juveniles online or take over the identify of a child whose parents have contacted police to look into inappropriate messages or requests for nude photos. In one case, a 6-year-old girl playing an Xbox game with other online players was contacted by a man in his 50s, who began sending her messages of a sexual nature. Fortunately, the girl was not old enough to know how to send photos, Savage said. The messages were discovered by the girl’s older brother, and her parents contacted police. That case is still under investigation.Another time, a young girl with Asperger’s syndrome — an illness on the autism spectrum characterized by difficulties in social interaction — and low self-esteem became involved in a conversation with a 42-year-old man online through her electronic tablet. The man persuaded the girl to send nude photos of herself, and he was arranging to meet her when her mother found the tablet and contacted police, Savage said.Investigators recovered photos of the girl and chats between her and the man.According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research, about 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.“People talk about how predators can be the guy next door. The victim can also be the child in their home,” Arlington detective Grant Gildon said. “That is why communication with your child is so important.”Gildon and Savage recommended that parents monitor their children’s online and cellphone activity, especially reviewing phone apps such as Kik Messenger and Snapchat photo messaging, to be aware of what their children are doing.“Failing to learn, that is empowering sexual predators. It is giving them access alone with their child because they don’t know how to work that,” Savage said.Unwelcome touchesLast year, 5,598 children were confirmed victims of physical or sexual abuse in Tarrant County. The youngest sexual abuse victim was 6 months old, said Dr. Jayme Coffman, medical director of Cook Children’s Child Advocacy Resource and Evaluation Team.“We would all like to be out of a job,” said Coffman, who examines children for signs of abuse and also reviews images and videos of suspected child pornography to assist with Tarrant County criminal investigations. “It would really be nice to prevent abuse to begin with.”Physical evidence of sexual abuse in children is rarely found, either because of the delay in an outcry or because the abuser was careful not to injure the child so the abuse could continue, Coffman said. That can make it difficult for parents to believe a child when he or she does make an outcry.“Pedophiles aren’t going to physically harm the child. If they do, they are going to be less likely to re-abuse the same child,” Coffman said.Coffman and other child advocates say is important for parents to teach their children the correct names for their body parts and to know the difference between welcome and unwelcome touches so the child can communicate with an adult when something is wrong.“Predators are talking about it with your kids. If we as parents or adults in the community are afraid to talk to kids about their bodies or prevention, you better bet predators are going to jump on that,” said Shellie McMillon, director of Centers and Education for the Alliance for Children.
Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock