A Derry mother whose 12 year-old daughter was stalked by paedophiles through a social networking site has issued a warning to parents to be extra cautious about their children’s online activity.
The mother, whose name we have withheld, said her world was “turned upside down” earlier this year when she discovered that her daughter had been targeted by a group of men pretending to be in their late teens.
The men befriended her daughter on the website before sending increasingly graphic messages and photographs to her - and encouraging her to do the same back.
“This has been a living hell,” the mother said.
“The calculating way in which these men operate - I just don’t understand it. My world fell apart when I found out what had been happening, how these men had been talking to my daughter, what they were trying to get her to do. How they had convinced her they loved her and had posed as teenagers to get to her.”
The men had in turn manipulated the local schoolgirl, threatening to kill themselves, or to rape her, if she told anyone about their relationship or stopped talking to them.
The girl’s mother said she wanted to warn other parents about what dangers were out there. “You don’t think it will happen to you. You just don’t. And there isn’t much help or advice out there.”
Worryingly, when spoken to about what had happened, her daughter said “everyone she knows talk to people online they don’t know”.
Police have been involved and are working on the case.
The Derry mother said she has been left “sickened and stunned” by what she has uncovered while trying to protect her daughter.
“We had noticed some strange behaviour,” the mother said, “but we put this down to simply her age as she headed towards her teenage years. Our daughter had always been very private and we just figured she wanted more privacy now. She would spend more time in her room, and sleep in in the morning. Her phone was always with her, but we thought that was just typical adolescent behaviour.”
However, on one occasion when her daughter left her phone unguarded her mother picked it up and uncovered a sickening number of explicit texts, messages and pictures sent to the 12-year-old.
The mother then set about uncovering her daughter’s online activities and discovered how she had been targeted by a number of men who had “stalked her” over a number of months.
“They said they were in their late teens. They spoke like teenagers - talking about things she likes, sending her pictures of presents they’d like to buy - things like that. And they told her they loved her and that she could trust them.”
The chats soon turned to a more graphic nature. “The men, there were two of them, sent exceptionally graphic messages of what they would want to do to her, what they wanted her to do them. They described in graphic details certain sexual acts and scenarios.
“They sent intimate, horrific pictures of themselves and encouraged her to send intimate pictures in return. They told her if she loved them she would - or worse they threatened her that they would hurt her or us if she didn’t.”
The ‘Journal’ has seen evidence of the material sent to the schoolgirl, the contents of which are too graphic to be described in a family newspaper. If the young girl tried to break off contact with them they would bombard her with messages day and night.
“They schooled her in how to cover her tracks, or their tracks, advising her never to leave her phone down, to delete everything before she left the house - they advised her about hiding her history. One of them even offered to meet her on one occasion when we went on a family holiday to Scotland. I dread to think what would have happened if we hadn’t found out before we went.
“They would top up her mobile phone so that she always had credit - it just defies belief, how they acted. One of them even offered to take her away to a new life in a foreign country.”
As the matter was referred to the police, more and more details of these men and their activities have emerged. To cover their tracks, they used a number of different mobile phones, used false addresses and gave false names. It is thought that one of the men may also have been contacting the local school girl pretending to be another person. At one stage they advised the local schoolgirl to destroy her computer at home so that any incriminating evidence would be destroyed.
The mother says the whole episode has “ripped her family apart”. “It has made me question everything. I thought I knew my daughter - we were very close - but to realise she could hide all this from me... I know none of this is her fault, that she has been manipulated by very calculating people, but you question everything.
“You question yourself as a parent - it has been completely heartbreaking. I can’t explain how many tears we’ve cried.”
Even now, the mother says her daughter remains “confused” about what happened to her. “She never had a boyfriend. She led a very sheltered life and she was bombarded with these adult emotions and thrown into a very adult world. Even now she finds it hard to accept entirely that these men were bad. That’s what frightens us.”
When asked what advice she would give to other parents she says: “Get the child protection leaflet from your network provider. It has lots of useful information and tools to protect your child. Get parental software for any computers or laptops you have.
“Also do not connect your child’s phone to your home internet hub, so they are paying for internet access. Encourage them to use the laptop/PC instead which allows you to be aware if your child is going through excessive credit.”