A like, a click, a few messages back and forth, and then an invitation. It can be as simple as that. The world of teenage dating has vastly changed since the days of notes left in lockers and telephone calls fielded by mom. Teenagers can tweet their every thought, share their every photo and make their locations known — all while perpetrators wait and watch.
Tumblr, a site that hosts 338 million blogs, is a creative outlet akin to a digital portfolio. It can also be used as a place to seek out "love" in the modern age.
Tumblr was the alleged recent vehicle of choice for Christopher Michael Stout, a 43-year-old Prineville resident accused of using the site to lure a 15-year-old adolescent into an online relationship. That relationship allegedly culminated into a face-to-face meeting at the Doubletree hotel in downtown Bend in late January, according to Bend Police. A few weeks later, acting off a tip, Bend Police say they arrested Stout and charged him with six criminal offenses, including sodomy and sex Abuse, encouraging child sex abuse, luring and using a child in the display of sexually explicit conduct. Stout was also charged with methamphetamine possession. Overall, 75 counts were lodged across six charges.
- Christopher M. Stout was arrested Feb 21 relating to child sex abuse charges.
A Growing Problem for Local Law Enforcement
Over his 17 years as a police officer, Bend Police Lt. Jason Maniscalco says he has seen first-hand an increase in cyber-related crime, especially with child sex abuse. "It's a huge problem," says Maniscalco, a lead investigator at the department. "It has so many different facets," he says, "you have local predators luring teens in and out of the area, out-of-towners coming in and luring locals, kids sending inappropriate things to each other...there's a lot going on."
Maniscalco admits it is hard to monitor the large online traffic volumes and says "most arrests are tipped off and reported to us." The department doesn't currently have a dedicated unit to child sex abuse and cyber crime; rather, select detectives undergo training in investigating predatory sex offenders. "...we just don't have the resources or the available officers. We could have detectives, you know, go online and pose as a juvenile, and we would most likely find a sex offender quite easily, but it's the lack of resources at the moment." Maniscalco says they're working to change that, and a plan to combat not only child sex abuse but human trafficking is in the works, although he didn't comment on specifics.
"The good thing is that your digital footprint will always be there, so we can always find that evidence they thought they think they can hide," Maniscalco says.
Looking and Acting Like Everyone Else
A quick look through Stout's Facebook photos paints a picture of an outdoorsy world traveler with many friends. The United States Forest Service confirmed Stout was a National Ochoco Forest employee and public records state a Christopher M. Stout as having worked as a forestry technician in Prineville from 2004 to 2015.
Those who lure children, "look and act like everyone else," says Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that works to end child sex abuse. Statistics listed on its website, d2l.org, state that females are five times more likely to be abused than males, and that over a period of one year, one in 25 youth received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact. Furthering that, 23 percent of 10 to 17-year-olds experience unwanted exposure to pornography, with abusers forming relationships with potential victims prior to abuse, by "Grooming," a process that draws the victim into a sexual relationship, maintaining that relationship in secrecy.
At the Muse Women's Conference held March 4 and 5 in Bend, Emily Evans, the director of the Women's Foundation of Oregon, said: "Perpetrators have sexually or domestically assaulted more than one million Oregon women and girls. That's more than half the female population." Women in Oregon experience childhood trauma at rates higher than the national average. The "Count Her In" report, compiled by Evans, states: "this trauma can lead to lifelong mental and physical health problems, lower educational attainment, increased likelihood of juvenile and adult criminal justice involvement, houselessness, and/or suicide." The report also noted that almost 50 percent of female survivors in the U.S. are raped before the age of 18.
A Crash Course in Safety
"More than ever, teenagers need a crash course in online safety and social media issues that they encounter on a daily basis," says Gabriella van Rij, an author, anti-bullying activist and public speaker. "It's a subject you should have ongoing conversations about." She notes a Pew Research Center study which found that of the teens who reported having dated, 25 percent had found their partner online. Pew established that 31 percent of teens under the age of 17 had sent a flirtatious message and that 10 percent had sent sexual photos or videos of themselves. Experts estimate that number to be quite higher. "That's a clear sign that this isn't always nice and innocent," van Rij says, "and parents need to step in to protect their teens." She disagrees with the sentiment that monitoring the apps your teen uses may be seen as intrusive." Express curiosity about the apps and let them explain to you how they work, she says. "You have a right as a parent to be on every app your son and daughter is on.... That way you can monitor what they're doing... for safety reasons."
In their online "Talking to your Kids about Digital Safety" manual, Darkness to Light warns that parents should "not underestimate the level of sophistication an abuser may undertake to message youth...pay attention to all downloaded apps and their capabilities, even ones that do not seem to be chat-related." Considering the Stout investigation, Tumblr may not be a typical social app that parents have on their radar to monitor.
If a parent finds questionable communications between an adult and a child, the manual advises remaining calm to avoid instilling shame and blame on the victim. Talk without accusation, try to get all the facts and then immediately report it to your local enforcement, no matter how seemingly trivial the solicitation or offense.
For further protection, the Darkness to Light site warns against turning on the location services feature of a child's device, noting it "allows devices to broadcast their location to the user's contacts," which an offender could use to locate the child.
"A lot of this comes down to parents having a good relationship with their teens during what are very pivotal years," van Rij says. "It's just another part of influencing and guiding them toward becoming responsible and mature adults."
Darkness to Light
Women's Foundation of Oregon
The National Center for Victims of Crime