Keeping foster children safe online

by Dr. John DeGarmo

Many foster parents are concerned about the phenomenon of “stranger danger,” or meeting a child predator or adult who is looking to bring harm to the foster child. As more foster children turn to online technology and social networking for entertainment, communication and escape, the number of foster children that are being placed in harm’s way via the Internet is increasing. It is difficult to correctly profile today’s online sexual predator. In the early part of the 21st Century, the sexual predator may look like the neighbor next door, the doctor in town, the co-worker in your building or the owner of the successful business. Sexual predators come from all races, all nations and all socio-economic situations. Generally, the average sexual predator is older than 25, male and acting alone, often from the comfort of his own home, as he seeks out helpless children online.

These predators believe that they will not get caught, as the Internet offers them a high degree of anonymity. These online predators can create different identities that do not seem threatening to their victims, giving them easier access to children. Before the advent of online communities and the digital world, child predators often had to lurk in parks, dark corners and on the streets at night waiting for potential victims. But in today’s online world, a predator can search for their victims through social networking sites, luring them into danger from the comfort and security of the predator’s home. One report found that 65 percent of online sex offenders learned home and school information from the victim’s social networking site, and 82 percent used the victim’s social networking page to find out about the victim’s likes and dislikes.

The number of children contacted by sexual predators online is disturbing and astounding. Approximately one out of every seven children is sexually contacted, or solicited, by a predator while online. Furthermore, many of these children are seriously pursued online by these predators, singled out in an attempt to lure them.

Foster children can be particularly vulnerable to sexual predators. Foster children often experience higher levels of anxiety than other children, and this can manifest itself in a number of ways. Perhaps the one that foster children face the most is separation anxiety, concerning the separation from their homes, families and to those they are attached to the most. Indeed, the more a child is moved from home to home the bigger the concern becomes. Those children who undergo multiple displacements often create walls to separate themselves in an attempt to not let others into their lives. This type of anxiety and insecurity can make them vulnerable to sexual predators.

More than anything, a foster child wishes for one thing; to be loved. As foster parents, we can protect the child from harm, provide a safe and secure home, offer nutritious meals and open up a doorway to opportunities for foster children, granting them new and exciting experiences that they may never have dreamed of. Yet, even with all of this, with all of the wonderful opportunities and safe environments, foster children really crave love the most. After all, every child deserves to be loved. Not only do children deserve love, they need it to grow in a healthy fashion. While there are many forms of love, the strongest one, and most important for a foster child, is that of unconditional love. Sadly, many children in foster care either do not receive this love at all, or receive it too late, after too much emotional damage has been done.

Unconditional love is simply being loved without restrictions or stipulations. For a foster child who may have been abused, beaten or neglected, this type of love is most important. Without this type of love, a foster child will not form necessary and healthy attachments with others, which could result in a number of attachment disorders. Foster children who suffer from these disorders will have great difficulty connecting with others, as well as managing their own emotions, not only during their childhood, but throughout the remainder of their lives. Emotional difficulties, such as a of lack of self worth, trust and the need to be in control often result in the lack of unconditional and healthy parental love. As anyone who has worked with foster children will tell you, most foster children face an enormous amount of emotional issues, often stemming from the lack of healthy love. For those foster children who have been abused in some way in the past, they may be more likely to show inappropriate sexual behaviour, or seek out love in inappropriate places. Consequently, they may seek out sexual content and relationships online.

Sadly, the search for love for many children in foster care leads to a road of sexual exploitation. Foster children are in need of love, yet they do not know what a healthy and loving relationship is. What many foster parents do not know is how easy it is for foster children to encounter sexual predators online. These sexual predators know that foster children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of assault. Children in foster care may be the most at risk for human trafficking across the globe. As these children in need often come from environments of physical and sexual abuse, neglect and poverty, they may feel that sexual abuse is normal, and easily succumb to those predators who are luring them into their fold. Sadly, in many third-world nations, the foster care system is one that offers little hope or protection for these children. As a result, many of these foster children fall through the cracks, and are easily lost in a system that never really provided a safe environment. For those foster children who age out of the system in poverty-stricken nations, surrendering to the lure of false promises from child traffickers is more appealing than the realities they may face with homelessness on dangerous streets.

Children in foster care often hope to escape the various challenges, difficulties and horrors of their situation. Modeling careers, dancers, entertainers, live-in nannies, housekeepers or other employment opportunities are regularly placed on websites and social networking sites. Yet, behind these employment opportunities there may be traffickers waiting for unsuspecting children to answer their ads and entice them to leave their homes, traveling to meet them for “interviews,” or even “guaranteed jobs.” For the foster child who has not been warned of these dangers, who is seeking to leave his foster home and the system, or who is looking for the promise of being accepted, these false opportunities are difficult to ignore. |

(c) 2014 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission from the new book “Keeping Foster Children Safe Online.” This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.

Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 12 years, and he and his wife have had more than 40 children come through their home. He is a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic and informative presentations. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of several books, including the new book “Keeping Foster Children Safe Online,” “The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home” and the foster care children’s book “A Different Home: A New Foster Child’s Story.” Dr. DeGarmo is the host of the weekly radio program “Foster Talk with Dr. John.” He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail.com, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at his website, http://drjohndegarmofostercare.weebly.com.