ONE CHILD AT A TIME: INSIDE THE POLICE HUNT TO RESCUE CHILDREN FROM ONLINE PREDATORS
In her speech at the Michener Awards in 2006, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General of Canada, said that “journalism has no real power unless it is used to present the facts and uncover the truth. When it succeeds in touching hearts and opening minds, it can change mentalities in lasting and profound ways.”
My goal – thanks to the financial support and encouragement of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship – was to try to touch hearts and open minds to the disturbing story of the sexual abuse of children aided by the Internet. The web has helped make child abuse terrifyingly common – it is the new face of crime in the 21st century. I set out to gain extraordinary access by law enforcement agencies around the world, from the renowned sex crimes units in Canada to the FBI in the United States as well as Interpol and New Scotland Yard in Europe.
The Fellowship allowed me to cross the country several times, finding stories that would never have been possible without the Michener-Deacon support. I was able to go behind the headlines about child pornography to describe how police officers, prosecutors and high-tech analysts are fighting back against this tide of abuse to save the victims – children who otherwise have no voice. My travels and interviews allowed me to document how clue by clue, and image by image, investigators are using CSI-type techniques and old-fashioned hard detective work to track down the predators.
I made numerous trips to Toronto, to spend time with the elite Child Exploitation Unit of the Toronto Police. For months I followed some of their cases as their investigations led to the arrest of dozens of predators – and the rescue of children – around the world. In Edmonton, I tracked the story of one determined officer whose work led to unravelling of one of the world’s largest online child abuse rings. In Ottawa, I spent time at the new RCMP-run National Child Exploitation Coordination Centre. I made two trips to a Canadian penitentiary to interview a convicted abuser who revealed the tricks his fellow predators use to lure children and how easy the Internet makes their work. I was also able to bring on board journalism students from UBC, Ryerson and Concordia to help in my research.
Because this is a crime that knows no borders, I needed to travel extensively – something that would have been impossible without the Michener-Deacon Fellowship. In the US, I visited investigators in Chicago, Washington and Dallas, who often work closely with their Canadian counterparts in difficult, undercover operations. In the UK, I documented how a new national agency – the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre – was doing path-breaking work not only in investigating abuse cases but in bringing the message of Internet safety directly to over a million children in schools and communities.
I also spoke to international experts who know best how parents can protect their children and how children, in the end, must be empowered to make their Internet experience as fun – and as secure – as possible.
The book was published in the spring of 2007, with prominent mention of the support of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship on the title pages and in the acknowledgements. The impact of the book was immediate. Maclean’s magazine ran an excerpt as a cover story. Reviewers were unanimous in their praise. “Julian Sher does a superb job of attacking the almost unbearable subject of child sexual abuse, by giving a voice to the victims and investigators who can’t turn a blind eye, either by choice or conscience,” said the Globe and Mail. “One Child gives readers hope, a renewed sense of direction and purpose.” The Toronto Star called it “fine and gripping… an important book that ultimately calls on us to do what we can.” The Montreal Gazette described it as “eye-opening…it reads like a thriller, complete with sting operations and stakeouts that could easily figure on the TV series 24.”
I addressed hundreds of Canadians in speeches across the country – in Manitoba to the highest judges in the province; at a church basement in Winnipeg; to a conference of police and prosecutors in Vancouver. Law enforcement is now using the book for training; it is on the course at several police colleges. Teachers are using it in schools and reaching out to parents and children.
I wrote several prominent articles for the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun on the subject. I was interviewed on dozens of radio and TV shows and became a regular guest on several national newscasts. The book also inspired a one-hour special TV documentary that I wrote and directed for the CBC and is now being distributed internationally.
Most gratifyingly, I received many emails and letters after the book was published. “It was a very hard book for me to read,” wrote one woman, a parent and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “I often was reduced to tears and had to put it down for awhile.”
But she stressed that the book “opened my eyes not only to how expansive child sexual abuse is on the internet throughout the world but also to how the many different police forces and organizations are trying to help the children and put a stop to this.”
“It is my greatest prayer and hope that children would not have to suffer this horrible invasion anymore,” she said. “I really do think that this is a book every parent must read.”
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean noted that Michener recipients “have one thing in common: they have helped to change society for the better.” If One Child at a Time helps raise public awareness and perhaps help rescue one more child, then the book and the Michener-Deacon Fellowship will have accomplished much.