230 – Cal Walsh and Protecting our Children

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak interview Callahan Walsh, a child advocate for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and co-host of In Pursuit with John Walsh on Investigation Discovery. They discuss how COVID-19 has presented challenges and opportunities in the fight against child sexual exploitation and how we can make sure that kids are equipped with safe and smart decision making to prevent online exploitation.

Callahan Walsh

Callahan Walsh is a child advocate for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and co-host of In Pursuit with John Walsh on Investigation Discovery. He is the son of John and Revé Walsh, who co-founded NCMEC in 1984 after the kidnapping and murder of their first son, Adam. Following in his parent’s footsteps, Callahan has focused his energy on fighting crime, helping find missing children, reducing child sexual exploitation, and preventing child victimization.

Key Points

  • John Shehan, NCMEC Vice President, shared, “In the first quarter of 2020, NCMEC became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material.”
  • Parents, educators, community leaders, and law enforcement have access to free online resources through NetSmartz that can help create a safer online community for kids.
  • Coming together as a community and using online safety programs can prevent the issues of missing and exploited children.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 230 – Callahan Walsh of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Protecting Our Children.

Production Credits [00:00:12] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:33] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:39] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:41] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, I’m so glad for our guest today because he and his family have been such an important voice and important partners in the work that so many of us care so deeply about. And today I know we’re going to learn so much from him. I’m so pleased to welcome Callahan Walsh to the show today. He is a child advocate for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and co-host of In Pursuit with John Walsh on Investigation Discovery. He is the son of John and Reve Walsh, who co-founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984 after the kidnapping and murder of their first son, Adam. Following his parents’ footsteps, Cal has focused his energy on fighting crime, helping find missing children, reducing child sexual exploitation, and preventing child victimization. Cal we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.

Cal [00:01:40] Thank you for having me. I really appreciate being here.

Sandie [00:01:43] So, Cal, I’ve been associated with a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for many years, worked with some greats that have been part of the team there. And when I read the latest statistics, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children published this note: that you have experienced a 90.46 percent increase in Cyber Tipline reports between January and June 2020 versus the same time period last year. And I have a quote from NCMEC Vice President, John Shehan, who said, “COVID-19, has presented challenges and opportunities in the fight against child sexual exploitation in the first quarter of 2020. NCMEC became aware of predators,” I have to pause here because I want people to listen, “became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material. At the same time, we experienced an explosion in reporting to our Cyber Tipline from both the public and electronic service providers, all while transitioning to a telework environment.” Cal, this is overwhelming. If I’m the parent of a child being schooled at home, what’s the first thing I need to do?

Cal [00:03:20] Well, it’s important for parents to understand some of the dangers that lurk online that their children face. Now the internet has created a life for the better in so many ways, but it has created new ways to harm children. And the fact that so many more kids and adults have increased screen time during this COVID epidemic has only increased the opportunities for those child predators to prey on victims, on these children. And so, it’s important for parents to understand that, it’s important for parents to understand these things and talk to their children about safe and smart decision making. As that quote that you just read from John Shehan. We did observe chatter on the darknet from these child predators, discussing how this is a great time to try to exploit children online, including sharing best practices. We have seen overall a 90 percent increase in the last few months, although in April alone there was over a 300 percent increase in reports to the Cyber Tipline of suspected child sexual exploitation and abuse. It went from last year’s numbers about a million reports during April, to over four million reports in April alone. And this from a few different factors. There were a few CSAM videos, child sexual abuse material videos that went viral, if you will, on some popular social media channels. Many people seeing those horrific images and videos, of course, want it to end. And they are well intended, but a bit misguided in the fact that they will often share that video or that post in hopes that it brings attention possibly to identify the child or the perpetrator. However, that is not the best course of action. We urge anybody who comes across this type of abuse online, and that’s anything from the child sexual abuse material to online enticement, grooming, sextortion, sex tourism to not share it, because any time you are sharing an image of that child, it’s re-exploiting that child and in fact, it is legal as well. But to report it, that is the right path to take to report it to the social media platform or the Internet service provider and also report it to the Cyber Tipline here at the National Center for Missing Exploited Children. We work with local, state and federal authorities to make sure that the reports that come in are handled accurately and the right authorities are the ones who are taking on these cases so that they can identify the child, so they can apprehend the suspect. And so, it’s so important for people if they come across any of this type of information to report it. But as you mentioned, so many of your listeners are parents. And so, it’s important for those parents to understand that these dangers lurk out there as well. They come in and see their child sitting there on the couch with the phone in their hand and think, oh, well, my children under my own roof, they’re in a safe place. However, you may not know who that child is talking to online and what kind of activity they’re up to. And that’s why it’s so important for parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about safety and about what they’re doing on these platforms.

Sandie [00:06:15] One of the responses that I’ve had during this unusual experience with so much online content is I just keep posting the Cyber Tipline because sharing it with your friends doesn’t help us at all. Will you tell us how to report via the Cyber Tipline?

Cal [00:06:38] Absolutely. It’s very easy. Your listeners can go to missingkids.org and there at the top, there are tabs for the Cyber Tipline. And anybody can make a report, so the public, law enforcement, Internet service providers, we have victims themselves making reports as well. And all those reports are taken in here at the National Center. They’re reviewed, we add value to these reports in hopes that it will aid law enforcement in their investigation. And it’s just so important for people to report these to the Cyber Tipline. They do great work. They’re working with, again, many federal agencies on many different levels. And that’s really what it’s all about, collaborating to make sure that these children who are being abused online, that that ends and that we try to prevent any future victimization as well. We want to make sure that what’s happening in the now is reported and so that law enforcement and the National Center can step in and make sure that a child is rescued.

Sandie [00:07:34] That’s perfect. And you just segued into the primary content. We want to talk about prevention. We want to focus ultimately on how we prevent children from being victimized. So, what is the best prevention to keep a child or youth safe online?

Cal [00:07:54] Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. And prevention is key here at the National Center. Of course, it’s all hands-on deck when a child goes missing or is being exploited, but we want to make sure kids don’t become exploited or go missing in the first place. And so, prevention is really a big part of that. And we use the NetSmartz program, it’s a program that we’ve created in-house. We’re lucky enough to have in-house animators that way we can design and make sure the message is as accurate as possible. But we take all the research and we serve as the nation’s clearinghouse for these issues. And so, we’re able to take years and years of data and information that we’ve gathered, we’re able to analyze that data, spot trends, and then come up with great safety tips and safety resources for parents, educators, and community leaders to use with children. So, again, the program is called NetSmartz, again, listeners can go to missingkids.org and find it there. It’s a free program, it consists of many different resources that are all age appropriate. It’s a free program as well too. The heart and soul of these animated videos that teach kids through different situations and scenarios on how to navigate the online waters safely, how to make safe and smart decisions. And we really try to entertain while we educate. I call it sticking vitamins in the junk food, if you will. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon a child would be watching, but again, it instills them with that safe decision making. It’s so important that we start young as well, too, because children are getting online sooner and sooner these days, younger and younger. And the knowledge gap is just so severe between the child and the parent. Many parents didn’t grow up with the Internet. And children are running circles around them when it comes to their online activity. So, it’s important for parents to try to understand the technology the best they can. And one great way to do that is to get on these platforms, to sign up to whatever social media platform your child is on and engaging with. Figure out how it works, set ground rules, especially if there’s been bad behavior in the past, and have ongoing conversations with your kids about safety. The same conversation you have with your youngest child is not the same conversation you have with your oldest child. And that’s where NetSmartz can really help as well, because we have conversation guides for parents to help make sure they have successful conversations with their kids and make sure that they’re age-appropriate and ongoing. The resources that I mentioned, the videos are fantastic, of course, there are activities and tip sheets and all sorts of things to follow up the lessons that are learned in those videos. But we even have video games as well that teach kids, again, some of those safety messaging. And so, it’s just important for parents to parent up to understand that this isn’t the safest place for your children to be. It is a great place for communication, for entertainment, for education. And it has changed this world incredibly, however, there are still some dangers that lurk, and parents need to understand that, and they need to empower their children with safe and smart decision making because the parent can’t always be there. Parents will go blue in the face trying to track down their child’s digital breadcrumb trail. And so that’s why the ongoing conversations are so key.

Sandie [00:10:56] I love the idea of ongoing conversations. And when you said entertain and educate, that is such a good description of the NetSmartz material. People on our podcast have heard me over the years talk about prevention from the perspective of me as a pediatric nurse and in prevention best practices: we want to predict what might happen, then we want to develop a strategy to protect from that happening, and then we want to practice over and over and over again. So, we brought forward the analogy of dental cavities. And so, you predict that if you eat candy, you’re going to have a cavity. So, what can we do to protect that? We teach you to brush your teeth and you go in and you see the dentist once a year, but you brush your teeth every single day. And the child toothbrush industry is almost like fashion industry. You can get a toothbrush in your favorite hero style and you can have flashing lights. They’ve taken you to entertain and educate to the prevention level in a really clear picture of what that looks like. So, how does missingkids.org NetSmartz use their tools so that we get that practice every single week?

Cal [00:12:27] Absolutely, and that is what’s so important is continuing to be a good digital citizen and practicing that every single day. That’s why we’ve incorporated a lot of safety messaging into the NetSmartz program, including cyberbullying and things like that, because it is all about digital citizenship. It’s a holistic approach to online behavior with young kids. And like you said, it is practiced every single day. And that’s why we also have bite-size tips and bite-size activities so that parents, and educators as well, can engage with their children regularly. It’s not just a once a year talk, it’s not just an every once in a while. It’s something that parents can use every day. They can put on NetSmartz, they can show the videos. Clicky is our spokes robot for Internet safety, he’s a big yellow robot. He’s got a dog named Router and he has two friends, Netty and Webster, their brother and sister. In the different situations and scenarios that they find themselves in, Clicky is able to help guide them and help show them how to make those safe decisions. In fact, we have a newly animated series out part of the NetSmartz program called “Into the Cloud”. And that’s our latest and greatest, it’s a new animation style, but it includes all those favorite characters that you know, from the NetSmartz program, including some of the more evil characters that we have if you will, some of the bad actors. And it’s so engaging for kid, we use song and dance and puzzles and all sorts of different stuff to really stimulate their minds. And it has to be engaging, it has to be entertaining for them because, you know, safety stuff can get corny real quick if it’s coming off really stringent and really, you know, one-note sort of thing, kids aren’t going to sit there and listen to it. But if you make it just like a Saturday morning cartoon and make it fun and engaging, kids are much more likely to sit there and listen. And in fact, what we’ve learned with our older kids, our 14 to17 year olds, is it’s really hard to engage with that group. Right? They don’t want to hear, you know, somebody that’s just, you know, older than them standing up in front of a classroom and tell them don’t do this, don’t do that. So, what we do is we create what’s called our “real-life stories”, and that’s where we have a survivor come into the National Center and they tell their own story in their own voice. We don’t show their face, we hide their identity, but we put a visual element to that recording. And when those teens hear these stories coming from their peers, it’s much more impactful, much more impactful. They’re much more likely to listen and really take in these types of lessons. It’s just really important to understand your audience and try to make sure that they’re going to be receptive to the type of content you’re putting out. And the NetSmartz team, that creative studio there, has just done a fantastic job.

Sandie [00:15:17] I love the focus on peer teaching that you have in your adolescent program. And I think it’s something that our teachers, who are having to move a lot of their content online, would find as a really valuable resource and take some burden off of them. How would they access that?

Cal [00:15:38] Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s called our Student Project Kit, and it’s there at the NetSmartz Web page as well. So, again, parents, educators can go to missingkids.org, under an education tab, click on NetSmartz. Of course, you can go to netsmartz.org as well, but look for the student project kit. And that student project kit is a program where we arm older teens with the NetSmartz resources and have them teach that to their younger peers. And it’s great because not only does it reinforce that messaging, it’s coming from, you know, like I said, one of their peers so they’re more likely to listen to it. But it’s a great way for those older teens to earn community service hours as well. I’ve used the program locally with many different after school programs and groups. The Police Explorers program is a great one, Boy Scouts of America as well has used the program, a lot of these different after school programs where they have sort of older teens with younger kids together. It’s a great opportunity for those older kids to teach the younger kids how to make them safe and smart decisions. So, look for the student project kid, it’s a great program that uses those NetSmartz resources, and it’s just a great way to get kids talking about safety.

Sandie [00:16:50] When I first started going to netsmartz.org, I was really impressed with how easy you made it for teachers to figure out which content to use in their classrooms. So, can you describe the way that you look at evaluating objectives and what age group and age appropriateness? Because for teachers right now who are overwhelmed, that is an advantage that just cannot be overstated.

Cal [00:17:21] Absolutely. We know that teachers see a lot more kids that go through their classroom than parents do. And sometimes at the end of the day, parents struggling to make sure they get to practice on time and get dinner on the table and do all that. And so, we often make sure that it’s educators who are the ones who are armed with these types of resources. It’s a great resource, we make it easy for them to take our lesson plans and incorporate those into their existing curriculum because we know teachers are great at talking about this type of stuff. And so as far as learning objectives, that’s why we make all of our resources age-appropriate because we understand that when it comes to the young children, they need to be talking and they need to be able to understand about not revealing too much personal information, not visiting websites that are inappropriate, not talking to anybody that they don’t know, that’s a stranger online. But when you get older, it’s sexting, it’s sextortion, it’s some of these things. And so, we make sure that the learning objectives are appropriate for the age so that when they do go through these programs at the end, they do understand what we want them to learn at that age group.

Sandie [00:18:31] How do they access those curriculum guides?

Cal [00:18:35] So, again, on netsmartz.org we’ve got tabs for educators. And look, I’ve gone to many, many schools and done presentations myself, and oftentimes it’s up to that educator who knows their children to really decide the topics that they’re going to talk about. I go to some schools and they’re not having issues with sexting in the middle school, and so we don’t talk about that and we’ll talk about some of the other things. Whereas I go to other schools and they say sexting is a big problem, you absolutely need to address it. And so, you know, it’s important for both parents and educators to evaluate the issues that they need to be talking about. We have fantastic presentations at the Net Smarts Web site. These presentations are PowerPoint, but they’re designed for children. So, it’s not death by PowerPoint, they’re animated, designed beautifully, they are editable. So, again, the teacher can decide, OK, I want to talk about these points and maybe I only have 30 minutes, the presentation is designed for an hour, so I’m going to omit some of this stuff. It’s totally fine. The presentation also comes with speaker’s notes, which is fantastic, it really arms and equips that educator with context to what that slide means. It’s not just slides, there’s are incorporated embedded videos throughout different games and activities that are played during that presentation. Again, all at netsmartz.org and a great resource for these teachers to bring digital citizenship and online safety into the classroom, especially during this online time.

Sandie [00:20:02] It’s an amazing resource and it’s broken down: high school, middle school, elementary K-2, and elementary 3-5. And they have tip sheets already to download and print. And I believe all of that’s available in Spanish. Is that right, Cal?

Cal [00:20:20] That is correct. We make sure that we translate our resources into Spanish. It is our most requested language, and so we try to make sure that all the resources that we’re putting out are at least translated into Spanish. So, absolutely if you have Spanish speaking classrooms, they can engage in this type of content as well.

Sandie [00:20:38] So, what I love about the materials is they’re put into educator kits, they have posters, they have teaching guides. So, the burden of being prepared to teach in your classroom, whether it’s K-2 or high school, it’s all done for you by the NetSmartz team. And one of the things that I really appreciate is that you partner, you have federal partners on them. So, your content is always up to date with your partners in the FBI, Internet crimes against children, homeland security. They’re all working with you, so you have the latest.

Cal [00:21:24] Absolutely. And that’s really what it’s all about, is sharing information and making sure that what we are teaching kids is up to date and accurate. So, us as the National Center, yes, we are the clearinghouse for these issues. We see them, but it’s always great to collaborate with our federal partners, with other child-serving organizations. We don’t operate in a bubble, we rely on these other organizations to help shed light on some things that we might have missed to engage in trainings and engage in these conferences where we can get together, meld minds, if you will, and make sure that what we’re putting out there to the public is as accurate as possible. Making sure we’re addressing the issues that are most important and we’re tackling what we see as trends in the issue of online exploitation to make sure that kids are equipped with the best safe and smart decision making possible.

Sandie [00:22:10] So, you have all these wonderful resources. How much does it cost me to download a tool kit?

Cal [00:22:16] It’s absolutely free. What we do here at the National Center is free for parents, educators, community leaders, law enforcement as well. We know a lot of school resource officers use the NetSmartz program. That’s why it’s so important to do podcasts like this, to shine a light on these resources. Of course, we’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have buku dollars to market these things. We have to rely on child advocates like yourself who have seen these resources and know that they work and spread that message. It’s not a good thing to be the best-kept secret. But we are used in every state, we’ve got millions of kids who have gone through the NetSmartz program. Educators galore who have praised the program, which is a fantastic thing. And that’s just what’s so important is to get this message out there that these resources exist and they’re free.

Sandie [00:23:05] I hadn’t seen the Into the Cloud, so I couldn’t resist clicking on the links to that right away. And oh, my goodness, I’m so excited. I’m going to send the link to the tool kit for facilitators to at least a dozen of my teacher friends who are feeling so overwhelmed right now. So, if you’re a teacher and you’re listening, I’m just going to tell you the headings in the table of contents. There is a facilitator resource section with tips and episode overviews and discussion guides and season one activities. There is a student activities section that has scribbles and posters and rules and then links to more resources. It is a dream for an overloaded teacher. So, I want to recommend this to everybody. Cal, I love the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I love NetSmartz. What is the most important thing that we can do as a community to keep our kids safer and build a safer community?

Cal [00:24:13] I think the most important thing is to tackle these issues head-on. You know, the issues of missing and exploited children is apparently a dark subject. It can be hard to talk about. And because of that, some people turn a blind eye. They feel it’s uncomfortable to talk about or they don’t want to admit it’s a problem that exists here in America, but it does. And acknowledging these issues and tackling them head-on is what I think is the most important thing. Coming together as communities, using resources like NetSmartz or any of the other online safety programs out there, working with organizations like the National Center to make sure that not only are we making sure that these things don’t exist in real-time, but preventing them from happening in the future as well. It really is all about collaboration, the whole community coming together, and stamping out this problem. And that’s done by first admitting that there are a problem and understanding that problem and then creating resources to solve that problem.

Sandie [00:25:13] I am so grateful for the work that was established back in 1984 by your dad and mom. And I want to remind people, learn, check it out, make sure you know exactly what to do to report on the Cyber Tipline. Don’t forward it to somebody else, don’t perpetuate its life online, just report it and teach the people in your community. Follow up, if you have kids, if you have friends who have kids, share the missingkids.org NetSmartz link. You’ll have so many family activities if you’ve got bored kids at home. This is also a great resource. Cal, I love “entertain and educate”. That’s such a great description of how the materials are designed. And I’m especially excited about integrating some of the student project kits into our peer to peer education materials that we do here at Vanguard with our Live2Free team. So, I want to thank you so much. I’m going to give you one minute to give your parting admonition to our listeners.

Cal [00:26:26] Well, Sandie, I do have good news for you. Season two of Into the Cloud is right around the corner, so stay tuned for that. I know you’ll be waiting in anticipation, but I just want to thank you personally for having me on and give me the opportunity to talk about these issues. I know it’s an issue that’s important to you and of course, near and dear to my heart. But the listeners, they have to know that these resources are out there. That’s why we do what we do to make sure that we can prevent this, prevent future victimization. And we do that through prevention in these great resources: the NetSmartz program, the Kids Smarts program. And it really is community leaders like yourself that help us perpetuate the safety messaging that we operate into those programs. Without that, these programs just sat on the shelf, they would do no good. So, I want to thank you personally for having me on and continuing this fight.

Sandie [00:27:15] Thank you, Cal. Dave?

Dave [00:27:18] Thank you both. What an important conversation we’re having right now, and especially during this time of COVID, as does both of you mentioned with the statistics. And Sandie, we’ve talked about NetSmartz many times on the show. But just a reminder to your point, continuous journey with this at a regular time of really thinking about the children in our lives, the educators in our lives, and continuing to move forward on this. Thank you so much, both of you. If you would like to dive in on the links that we’ve mentioned in this episode. I invite you to go over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. That is the very best place to go for all of the links, that will get you all the resources we’ve mentioned here today. We’re also inviting you to take the first step if perhaps you’re listening for the first time or one of the first times to the show while you’re online, you can download a free copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, a quick start guide to ending human trafficking. We’ll walk you through the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you’ll want to know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. And also, while you’re online, if you’d like to investigate more about the next Ensure Justice conference that’s being hosted by the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University, that’ll be March 5th and 6th 2021. EnsureJustice.com is where to go for that. And we will be back for our next conversation in two weeks. Thanks so much, Sandie.

Sandie [00:28:47] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:28:48] Take care, everyone. Have a great day.

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