Internet safety: A mother's story of how a paedophile groomed her 11-year-old daughter online

Tired of the endless rows, Hannah H finally gave in to the demands from her 11-year-old daughter to have a Facebook account. Little did she know that she had opened the door to a paedophile who lived in her town  – and the events that followed were life-changing. She explains how easily he gained her daughter's trust and how little she knew about protecting her online

Monday 06 February 2017 23:11

You have many jobs as a parent: to provide, to educate, to show love. The list goes on, but fundamentally the most important job of all is to keep your child safe. I failed to do that and I can’t turn back the clock; I can’t erase what happened and I have to live with it every day and accept it. It’s not a good feeling.

I love the internet, everything about it. I love the thrill of all that colossal information at my fingertips. We can book a dental appointment, arrange a date, plan a world tour, get a degree – all from the comfort of our own sofas. Technology is our future and I understand the importance of making sure our children are highly skilled in this digital age. But the harsh reality is this: unless you are going to supervise your children 100 per cent of the time while online, they are not safe.

I was a social worker specialising in working with vulnerable children when it happened in 2012 and I thought I was pretty clued up when it came to child protection. I didn’t want my daughter to have Facebook: the legal age is 13 and she was still only 11. Her older sister had it and all the kids at school were talking about it; she said she felt left out. She would pester me daily: “It’s not fair, Maddy has it, Kate has it, why can’t I have it? Please mum please mum please mum.”

I knew in my gut that I shouldn’t have let her, but eventually and regrettably I gave in – I was sick of the relentless arguments. I set her account to private and told her explicitly that she wasn’t allowed to make friends with anyone she didn’t know. I noted her password and told her that I might occasionally check her account. I warned her about paedophiles.

His method was simple yet highly effective. He managed to make ‘'friends’' with other girls at her school and by the time he came to request my daughter, they had 32 mutual friends. So what does a paedophile look like? The picture she saw on his profile was a blurred photo of a teenager wearing what looked like school uniform. He called himself Jack Smith. My daughter wasn’t sure if she knew him, but they had 32 mutual friends, so she presumed that she did, and she accepted him.

I only found out who he was at the trial. He lived just around the corner from us. I have no idea if he specifically targeted my daughter because he knew who she was or whether it was just a terrible coincidence. I’ll never know. He was sentenced to five years in custody.

He was the smiling assistant who helped us in our local supermarket. Late 20s, tall, thin and geeky looking, not your average looking paedophile, whatever that is. He’d have a joke with us and offer to help with our packing. I can remember commenting to a friend: “Have you seen that new guy in the shop, he’s so nice and friendly.” So charmed was I by him. This was the man who groomed my daughter.

'I also failed to educate my daughter about how paedophiles work' (iStockphoto)

When I discovered what had happened, I refrained from asking her the detail of it, although of course I established that she hadn’t met him face to face. She didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t push her; I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t bare to hear the truth of it. At the police interview I heard it all.

It began with him sending her friendly messages, a few jokes, some emojis thrown in – all relatively innocent. This progressed to asking her to turn the webcam on; I didn’t even know Facebook had a webcam option at that time. She resisted at first, but they were building up a friendship and in the end she felt obliged. She told me that she was also intrigued. She turned the webcam on but didn’t show herself, instead she placed one of her teddies in front of the screen. The fact that she had a teddy bear on hand to be able to do this breaks my heart repeatedly.

He was masturbating on his webcam. My daughter’s first sexual experience was seeing the penis of a paedophile masturbating in her bedroom. She closed the webcam down. He began sending her obscene, derogatory, misogynistic and sexually abusive messages. When the police read the messages to us it was hard to take in at first. A mixture of shock, disgust, bewilderment, despair and sadness all combined. My daughter’s childhood tainted. She subsequently blocked him. This all happened over the space of two weeks.

At the time she didn’t tell anyone. She spent over a year feeling ashamed; carrying the secret around with her. She no longer felt safe at home: she had allowed a paedophile into her bedroom. If someone had said to me that my daughter was harbouring a secret like that I’d have told them not to be ridiculous, there’s nothing we don’t or can’t talk about. But she didn’t feel like she could tell me as she’d broken one of my Facebook rules and it had led to something horrific, and she felt responsible. Not only had she been violated and had nowhere to turn, she was ashamed of her own behaviour.

The NSPCC found that '‘more than one in four of children aged 11-16 with a profile on a social networking site have experienced something upsetting on it in the past year'’ but ‘'only 22 per cent of the children who were upset talked with someone else face to face about the experience.’'

Eventually, he was caught. He continued with his grooming career and a more proactive mum checked her daughter’s account and reported him to the police. Without her actions who knows how many more girls he would have gone on to groom, and whether his appetites would have progressed. He was charged with grooming 38 girls.

We have four children and once the dinner’s done, there’s the younger two to read with, do homework with, and then bath. I’m embarrassed to tell you that I paid no heed at all to the older two going upstairs to their rooms, I was completely naive. Ofcom found in 2016 that '‘one in three 'tweens (8-11s), and eight in 10 older children (12-15s) now have their own smartphone'’. I realised at that point and too late that computers and phones should be downstairs, and used with supervision only.

I also failed to educate my daughter about the exact nature of how paedophiles work: even though this was part of my job, in relation to the internet at that time, I honestly didn’t really know. Did I assume he would have been dressed up as The Big Bad Wolf with the words ‘'sex offender'’ tattooed onto his face? I felt very ashamed at my lack of awareness, I felt like a fool.

I went to an open-mic at our local pub last night. The paedophile’s mum was sat in there. It’s not her fault, she’s not the paedophile, but I had to leave. I came home and cried all evening. I don’t cry all the time about it anymore; but it’s often in the back of my mind.

I can’t really say whether my daughter is still affected by it, I hope not; young people are far more resilient than adults I’ve found. She’s never played the victim role, she could see him for the pathetic and desperate man that he is. She excels at school, has good friendships and she’s a kind, intelligent and confident young woman.

I don’t think she tells anyone about it, not because she’s ashamed, but because she hasn’t allowed it to define her. I told her that I wanted to write this article, I asked her if it was ok, she looked at me thoughtfully and said: “Yes, I think you should,” and gave me one of her quiet smiles.

After it happened I took her phone off her, closed down her social media accounts and told her that she had to stay downstairs with the rest of the family. It wasn’t as a punishment, I just couldn’t think of any other option. She was annoyed but she accepted it.

I saw a change in her. She became more involved with the family, she played with the younger children, cooked dinner with us and got back into reading again. We spent weekends in bookshops finding new authors and discussing characters. She began to smile again. She would ask every now and again if she could have a new phone, I’d say no. She asked less and less, and by the time I allowed her to have a phone again a year later she was no longer interested.

I have lots of friends with small children, some as young as nine, on Instagram and Facebook. I can’t share my experience with them, it’s not my experience to share, but I do try to explain to them how easily children can be groomed online. They say: '‘Yes but all their friends have it, what can you do?'’

If you’re prepared to take the risk there is plenty of advice and information that can help to keep your child safe online. The NSPCC, Childnet, and CEOP (The National Crime Agency) all have up to date information for parents and children. Personally, I’m a hardliner when it comes to the internet now. It’s no to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. I do not think that you can keep children safe online.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of family and friends