Jim decided to share the story of how his daughter was groomed and abducted by paedophiles, in order to help other children and parents.
“Her mother and I divorced when Lucy was five. Her mother has some serious health issues, so Lucy has lived with me, almost exclusively, for 6 years. We are very close and there is a lot of love, laughter and music in our home. She’s my little Princess.
We live in a small, rural town. It’s quiet and nothing much happens. I thought it was a safe place to raise my little girl.
I don’t want to say what I do or where I work.
I was aware of paedophiles and grooming, obviously, but I never thought it would happen to my little girl.
I thought she was safe here, with me.
I was wrong.
Looking back, I was extremely naive, which is why I’m doing this. I wish I had been aware of the scale, method and ferocity of online grooming.
Even before Lucy left the local primary school, most of her friends had iPhones and ipads, Facebook and Snapchat. So, for her 10th Birthday, I bought her a second hand Iphone. She loved it, and it was great for me to be able to contact her, no matter where she was. I thought it was a good move, safety-wise.
I think we talked a little bit about online safety, but I know she had covered it as part of her lessons at school. She seemed aware of it.
I thought it was too early to have a conversation about porn or any of that stuff, because Lucy was only 11 and hadn’t started puberty to any great degree. I felt she was still too young.
Lucy had a close circle of friends and she’d have sleepovers, go on shopping trips or to the local parks. She was a normal kid. In such a small town, everyone looks out for each other. I always knew where she was and who she was with.
Well, I thought I did.
For me, everything changed on Saturday 10th September, 2016.
Lucy was having a sleepover at a friend’s house, which was in the same town, less than two miles away. She had been there many times, and the parents are good people. I had no concerns at all.
It was nice for me to have a night off. I adore my daughter, but a day and night to myself is a rare and welcome treat.
Making dinner, I was hit by a sudden impulse to ring Lucy and see how she was doing. She’s a real Daddy’s girl and we send lots of messages. It was a powerful, instinctive urge, which was unsettling.
Her phone went straight to answerphone, which wasn’t anything unusual. Signal can be patchy in rural areas. I sent a message asking if she was having fun, with kisses and hearts, and asked her to send me a message when she could.
After dinner, I rang her friend’s landline, but no answer. I remember having a feeling that something wasn’t right, but sat down, clicked the TV on and figured I’d call again in an hour.
By 9, I was getting worried. It was unusual that Lucy hadn’t sent me a message. I told myself they’d gone out for a meal or to the pictures or something normal. I was being irrational.
The phone rang at 10.32pm. It was the police. They had found Lucy. She was okay but very upset. They were going to bring her home but needed to talk to me.
What did they mean, ‘found her?’
The doorbell rang and Lucy rushed in. She looked terrified and threw herself onto me, sobbing and shaking. I folded my arms around her and noticed the female police officer’s sad smile.
After Lucy had calmed down, she went upstairs and crashed. She fell fast asleep.
The police officer told me what had happened:
‘Lucy and her friend, Cathy, were abducted by a man, ‘M’, and an accomplice. We don’t know exactly what happened yet, but there was a sexual element to this. Lucy managed to run away but got lost. The sexual contact seems to have been minimal. With Lucy, at least.’
I didn’t say a word, I just stared. Cathy was 12 and Lucy’s BFF.
The police officer continued, ‘There’s something else. Has Lucy told you about the Snapchat messages?’
I shook my head.
APPS & MESSAGES
“I downloaded Snapchat for a few days, I think, but it didn’t interest me. It was clearly aimed at kids. When Lucy asked me if she could download it onto her phone, I said ‘yes’. I was probably tired or just didn’t think about it.
Reading the messages that night was terrible. They started off light and vague, but it didn’t take long for me to see what was happening.
Having taken legal advice, Jim has agreed to share edited screenshots of the Snapchat messages from Lucy’s phone:
“The police officer told me that ‘M’ wasn’t a child. He was an adult, was known to police and it was called ‘grooming’. Lucy hadn’t been in contact for long, but Cathy had been groomed for much, much longer.
Cathy had given Lucy’s Snapchat username to ‘M’, and told her that this ‘really hot guy was into her’, that she should accept his friend request and talk to him.
‘M’ lives two miles outside our town. I’m not going to tell you his name and address.
Lucy and Cathy had gone to the local park to meet him. He talked them into going somewhere secret – an abandoned gas works – where he tried to sexually abuse them.
Lucy fought him off and started running. It was very dark, she didn’t know where she was and her phone had no signal.
She saw some lights in the distance, so ran towards them. Miraculously, a police car had been driving by and spotted her near the edge of the road.
Before the police officer left, she asked if I wanted to press charges against M? I said ‘yes’ without a moment’s hesitation.
The guilt was almost overwhelming. Why hadn’t I known? Why did I let her have Snapchat? What the hell have I done? I crucified myself.
We were so close and I thought she told me everything. Why hadn’t she told me about ‘M’?
Those feelings quickly gave way to blind rage. It’s hard to express the level of anger I felt towards these men, but I’ll come back to that.
When I stopped at her door that night, her sleep wasn’t peaceful. Her hands were clenched into fists and she was grinding her teeth. I will never forgive those men for the anguish they put on her face.
Two days later, we were visited by specially trained CID officers, and a woman from Social Services. I co-operated fully with everyone, and let Lucy give a statement.
I also agreed to give the police Lucy’s phone and iPad, so they could go through them and retrieve any evidence.
Over the next 6 months, Lucy was interviewed seven times. Not just about the abduction, but other events and abuses that she had witnessed.
Once, she spent over an hour giving video evidence, while I sat downstairs in a specially designed house for interviewing children who were victims of abuse.
She was treated really well on each occasion, and offered counselling and support.
At first, it was hard to convince Lucy to tell the truth. Not because she’s dishonest, but because she had been groomed. Everyone, myself included, became the enemy. She wanted to protect both Cathy and ‘M’:
‘He’s nice, Dad! He’s not done anything wrong!’
I don’t know where I found the patience to reason with her. My instinct was to shake her and scream ‘don’t be so stupid! He wants to hurt you!’ but she was 11, had been groomed and couldn’t see that.
We talked a lot and I explained that I wouldn’t betray her. I told her she could tell me anything, and that I’d only tell the police what she agreed I could.
That wasn’t 100% true. I would email the CID officer if she told me anything that I felt needed to be shared. The officer would tell Lucy she had found out from someone else. I felt bad about that, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The police were really good with Lucy. They weren’t patronising and they listened to her, but the whole thing caused her a lot of internal conflict and pain.
She was torn between protecting her BFF and her groomer, while not wanting to lie to me or the police. It was really tough on her. She would alternate between silence, denial, anger and sobbing.
‘M’ was charged with child abduction and offences under sections 14 and 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and released on bail. I wanted him imprisoned, but that’s not how the law works.
His initial bail conditions included him having no contact with Lucy, by any means, but he contacted her via email and her Xbox, so the police were able to place further restrictions on him.
He wasn’t allowed within the limits of the town, unless he had a specific reason to be driving through it. The limits of the town were defined by the 30 mph speed signs.
Despite being arrested, charged and on bail, it was very clear that the groomer was not going to stop.
That is really important to understand. They will not let your child go, no matter what.
With that realisation, I became absolutely determined to make it as tough as possible for M to get to my daughter.
I resigned as manager at work and cut my hours down so that I could spend more time with her. She clearly needed me.
It also meant that I could wait for Lucy’s bus to come in. Often, there would be a police car there as well. I walked her to the bus stop in the morning and was in daily contact with her school.
She was not allowed access to any device that could be linked to the internet, including her Xbox and Nintendo 3DS. Her world was severely restricted, and she was not happy, but I felt I had to do it.
She was not allowed to go anywhere without me, or have any sleepovers. I felt so sorry for her, but I just couldn’t risk it. The one occasion I let her go to a friend’s house for tea, Lucy messaged ‘M’, using her friend’s phone.
I had a small network of local friends who would help me. If they saw ‘M’ in town, they would ring me and I would call the police.
This may seem OTT, but as far as I was concerned, myself and the paedophile were at war.
‘M’ broke his bail conditions regularly, but police found it impossible to catch him. You see, he wasn’t working alone. He had people who would drive him to meet Cathy, then act as look-outs, texting him if they saw me or the police around.
Cathy was ‘in love’ and ‘in a relationship’ with ‘M’, Lucy told me. And, of course, Cathy refused to give statements to police, cooperate with Social Services, or surrender her phones.
As a result of being groomed and abducted, Lucy was placed on the Child Protection Register. She was considered to be at ‘high risk of sexual exploitation’.
It is hard to describe the trauma of sitting in a room with Social Services, a school welfare officer, a CID officer, a nurse and an adjudicator while they describe the severe risk they felt my daughter faced.
I considered myself a total failure. I couldn’t protect my own child.
They talked about bi-weekly home visits, about access to her room, about therapists, sexualized behaviour, counsellors, strategies, teams, psychologists. They talked about weight loss and about the cuts to her arms and legs.
My little girl had started to self-harm. There were deep, dark cuts on her arms that must have really hurt. I could not believe that I hadn’t seen them! Some of them were very fresh, others had started to heal. She had hidden them under the long sleeves of her school jumper and pyjamas. I asked what she had used, and she said ‘the ring-pulls off Coke cans’.
When I asked her why she did it, she didn’t know. Kids don’t always know why they do things.
The social workers and police suggested that I search her room and remove anything from the house that could be used to hurt herself.
I wept when I searched Lucy’s room for hidden phones and razor blades, and when I locked all sharp objects and medicines in a steel box. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Lucy’s behaviour suffered greatly. She had over fifty detentions in her first two terms at high school. She spent more time in detention than in class. She was disruptive, defiant, devious, withdrawn, rude and angry. She had become a problem child.
I kept thinking, ‘well, yes, I’m not surprised she’s angry! You’d be angry too!’
When I got angry, I caused the Social Worker ‘concern’. When I defended her, I was being naive. Most of the time I tried to appear compliant and reasonable, but that was an act. On the inside, I was in hell.
If I wanted to take her out of the county to go shopping, or to see her Grandad, I had to ring Social Services, so they could inform the police that an ‘at risk’ child was travelling out of the county. I had to let them know where she would be staying and who with, and provide dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers. Staying overnight without me was out of the question.
I agreed to everything. My single focus was keeping her safe, so I did what was suggested. I’d have done pretty much anything to make sure she was safe. I trusted that they knew best.
Lucy’s initial social worker made it clear to me that if I didn’t co-operate, they would get a court order to remove her into care. That really pissed me off. I am still annoyed that she did that, but I’ll get over it.
GROOMING & SNAPCHAT
The grooming was initially carried out via Snapchat. It’s the platform that seems most favoured by paedophiles – for two reasons.
1) it’s used mostly by children,
2) some messages self-delete after a few moments of being read. That makes it very difficult for police to access image or text evidence.
I have to say that several police officers told me that Snapchat, as a company, are very slow and difficult to deal with in regard to retrieving evidence.
The worst part of the Snapchat grooming, worse even than the sexual element, was the way M manipulated her into thinking that he was the only one who understood and would protect her. He was her best friend, her confidante, her Superman. I was the enemy, along with friends, teachers and especially, the police.
And I couldn’t believe the speed at which M worked on her.
He took the normal insecurities that any 11 year-old girl has about her body and her looks and used them. He complimented her, flattered her, boosted her self-esteem, gained her trust, and tried to make her ‘fall in love’, like he had with Cathy.
Once he had her trust and the keys to her self-esteem, he could control her, by making her feel bad if she didn’t do what he wanted. It’s really that simple.
Lucy felt that she needed him, that he was looking after her.
I didn’t realise how vulnerable she was and it broke my heart. Reading all the messages was very painful.
Sometimes, a part of me would get angry at my daughter. I thought, ‘how can you be so bloody stupid and fall for this stuff!’
But she was only 11. She can’t always see what’s going on below the surface. She trusts and believes and thinks he means it. He made her feel special and beautiful and grown up.
She’s a child and isn’t worldly enough to cope with the level of coercion and control that M employed.
Once these paedophiles have control, they can start to exploit them. They can meet them, coerce them, get them drunk, drug them, have sex with them, video them, photograph them, even sell or trade them. It is terrifying.
Girls of Lucy’s age are fiercely loyal to their friends. Friendships and their social lives are everything. It’s a really intense and emotional age, and paedophiles know this.
‘M’ and his gang would use blackmail. They would threaten to hurt Cathy if Lucy told the police, and vice versa. It was hard to break through that.
These ‘men’ are organised, clever and relentless. Once they have a child on the hook, they will not let her go.
And it’s not just girls. Boys can be groomed, abducted and raped. They can get to them via online games, through PlayStations or Xboxes, as well as phones and ipads.
They will give your children phones you know nothing about. I found a phone under Lucy’s mattress that she had been given by one of M’s gang.
They are ceaseless, devious and it’s very hard to stop them.
Even after I had taken everything off Lucy, they got to her at school.
Cathy and Lucy would hide in toilet cubicles and ‘M’ would Facetime them on a secret phone or iPod. They were shown how to ‘piggy back’ off someone else’s wi-fi.
The school tried to keep the girls apart, but they cannot monitor every single child.
Obviously, I considered quitting my job and moving. Just get away from it all. For Lucy, though, leaving her school, her friends, family, home and everything familiar – it seemed even more traumatic. I wanted to keep her life as normal and constant as possible.
There was also a sickening realisation – if there were this number of paedophiles in a population of 5,000, where was it safe to move to?
RAGE AND THE THIRST FOR VENGEANCE
I have seen M eleven times. He has deliberately come to my workplace – presumably to try and intimidate or provoke me.
I try to be peaceful, positive and loving, but if I thought I could get away with it, I would beat him until he was dead.
Fighting the rage has been a daily process for nearly a year. I have some good friends who have helped, and I’ve used other techniques to help me stay calm – prayer, exercise and music. I don’t drink or do drugs, but I often wished I did.
There was something a CID officer once said and it stayed with me:
‘I would want to kill him, too. I’ve got kids. But, think it through – who will look after Lucy while you’re in prison? Because you would be charged, you would be tried and you would be imprisoned.’
I couldn’t let that happen. I had to stay focused on being there for Lucy. I would often feel like a coward, a weak man, a failure, but, to this day, I have not hit him.
A CHILD ABDUCTION WARNING NOTICE
The CPS dropped the case against ‘M’ and he was released from his bail restrictions on 23rd April 2017.
It is very difficult to secure reliable witness statements from children who are still being groomed. I’ll leave it there. I have to be careful what I say.
It wasn’t the fault of the police. They tried everything to get him. I have nothing but admiration and respect for every officer involved. They know he’s a threat and Lucy isn’t the first child he’s groomed and abducted. She won’t be the last. It’s one thing knowing, it’s another thing proving.
‘M’ also had help from other men who provided alibis, gave him phones, ferried him around in the backs of their cars, and let him use their houses or flats to meet up with children. They are as guilty as he is.
Police gave me the names of five local men who they considered to be a threat to Lucy and other girls her age. Police monitor them, but they can’t just arrest them.
Having local officers on the street was definitely instrumental in protecting my daughter. Lucy felt safer and it made M’s life more difficult.
The day after the case was dropped, M was served with a Child Abduction Warning Notice, at my request. It means that if he approaches Lucy in any way, I can have him arrested for attempting to abduct her again.
It’s currently all I can do, legally.
I had held it together for the whole of the investigation, but ‘M’ came to my place of work on the day the case was dropped and smiled at me.
I tried to attack him and nearly lost my job. I couldn’t bear to see him smiling.
I took two weeks off work – something I never thought I’d do. It’s not in my nature to take days off or seek help, but I had to. I think I would have collapsed from the tension. The whole nightmare just caught up with me and I couldn’t cope any more. It seemed like ‘M’ had won. He was free.
I swallowed both my male pride and my fear, and went to see a psychologist. I had to keep it together for Lucy’s sake. She needed me. So I had to deal with it all – the sea of guilt, anger, shame, everything.
The time off and the sessions with the psychologist helped. I was grudgingly able to talk it through and get some perspective on things. I’m not ashamed to say that after each session, on my own, I sobbed like a child.
He hadn’t won and he wasn’t free. He was trapped in the hell of being a paedophile and he would be caught. Not this time, but one day. He hadn’t managed to get to my little girl, and she would be fine. She’s a tough cookie.
Lucy has her own counsellor and I know she finds it useful to be able to talk about things that bother her. I’m her Dad, not her friend or her therapist. There are things that she needs to talk to other people about and I’m 100% happy with that.
I am incredibly proud of her. It has been hard for me, so I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s been like for her.
Firstly, you will have to fight to get your child back, because paedophiles will not let them go.
You will have to take back the control. Talk to your kids. Have conversations about grooming. Get it out in the open. It’s dark and it’s horrible, yes, but it’s real and it needs to be talked about.
– Check their phones. Get access, passwords, usernames. Sod the tantrums and outrage. You might think it’s intrusive or over-the-top, but the alternative is far worse.
Keep up to date, because they can change passwords and usernames like socks.
They will often have more than one account, whether it’s Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube. Don’t be fobbed off. If they are being groomed, they will be devious.
Observe them while they are texting. Look for anything unusual. Trust your instincts.
With Snapchat (or any of the social media sites), check their contacts and don’t be fooled. Groomers will pose as children of both sexes. They will have childish usernames, like Watermelon66, KissKiss, BaeBae, Daisylove.
Find out who they are. Are these contacts and friends actually people she knows in real life? Get details. Check stuff out.
No teacher will ever accept or send friend requests to pupils.
Why is your kid chatting on WhatsApp or sharing pictures on Instagram with a man who works at the local supermarket? Question things.
If your child is being controlled by paedophiles, you will have to be clever and thorough.
Here’s an example:
Lucy asked me this morning if she could go out to the park and meet up with two friends, ‘Elisha’ and ‘Mary’. I said, okay, and we agreed a time she needed to be back and I that checked she had credit on her phone.
I also immediately logged into her Snapchat account, without her knowledge or permission, and checked her messages. It was clear that she was meeting up with her friends, so that was good. Had she sent messages that didn’t fit with what she had told me, I would have stopped the whole event.
I’m not interested in snooping or worrying that they may swear or talk about boys, I just need to be sure that she’s not being groomed. Do I feel good about it? No. Will I keep doing it? Yes.
I know the girls she’s meeting up with, I make sure I know the parent’s numbers and the girl’s numbers.
When kids are being groomed they will lie, hide things and you will know absolutely nothing about it.
You have to get involved, be proactive and strict.
If Lucy changes a password, I will know and her phone will be taken away.
– Don’t make assumptions about paedophiles or grooming. You don’t know what they are like. They are not stereotypes and they are not often strangers. They can be good-looking, affable 19 year-olds that your kids know. They are not all middle-aged men.
Paedophile rings have scouts. These scouts are older kids that help them catch fresh meat. That fresh meat is your child.
– Your happy and innocent kid can be upstairs, right now, making and posting videos and/or vlogs, on music.ly or YouTube. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, get them to show you. Make it a positive, fun thing. They can be surprisingly enjoyable.
Just keep an eye on it, because paedophiles will scrutinise these videos for both masturbatory pleasure and to see if there are jumpers, shirts or blazers with school logos on. If they get a school, they get a location. If they get a location, they can scout, hook and take. They want personal information.
Can you see any geographical landmarks in the background, through the window? Are there books on their desks with their names on?
Lucy knew M. He hung around the skate park. That’s why she trusted him. Lucy knew about staying away from strangers, she knew not to accept friend requests from people she didn’t know. M was a face she was vaguely familiar with. He was just around. He waited in the shadows until she was the right age for him.
You see, they have preferences. Blonde, blue-eyed, 8 year-old girls. 11 year-old Black or Asian girls. 5 year-old boys.
My little girl was fresh meat.
– This may be obvious, but co-operate with the police. If you don’t, it makes it so much easier for the paedophiles. Trust me, a case can completely collapse because a family won’t co-operate.
The police are not interested in your lifestyle or your past. They don’t care if you smoke a bit of weed or if your house is messy. They just want to stop paedophiles.
– Do you know how to make sure Snap Map is set to Ghost Mode?
I didn’t even know that it shared the exact location of your child.
I’ve had to become tech-savvy, quickly.
On Snapchat, for example, picture messages will self-delete after a few seconds. The only way to save them is to quickly take a screen shot.
However, most grooming will take the form of conversations, so here is exactly how to save them:
Hold your finger on the text of the conversation for a second and an icon will appear from the left to tell you it’s been saved.
Again, you can take a screen shot and then send that to your phone or email.
I’ve learned how to set all Lucy’s apps so only her contacts can see what she posts, which means I check all her contacts.
I link Lucy’s iTunes account and her phone to mine, so I can see all her contacts and every email she sends or receives.
If Lucy wants to download an app to her phone, she has to request authorisation from me. I have to key in a code that she doesn’t know.
None of this is 100% fool-proof, but it’s better. It means that she knows I’m watching, that I’m involved and I care. Kids need, want and like boundaries and conditions.
I recently read the transcript of a police interview that Lucy had. One small exchange jumped out:
Police: “Do you like living with your Dad?”
Lucy: “Yeah. He looks after me and cares about me. He is strict and doesn’t just let me do whatever I want.”
Police: “How does that make you feel?”
I still feel guilty. Every day. I wish I could go back and change it.
I should have been more aware of the risks of phones and X-boxes. I shouldn’t have let her have a Facebook profile. I thought it was ok. I was busy or tired. I wanted her to have what her friends had. I wanted her to amuse herself while I did my own thing. I wanted to be a cool Dad or have an easy life.
I cannot change any of it. I can only deal with today.
On 3rd April 2017, a new law came into effect that makes grooming a criminal offence. The official terminology is ‘sexual communication with a child’. That is fantastic news. It carries a two year custodial sentence. It was too late for Lucy, but it is a major step forward.
Yesterday, I attended another meeting with Lucy’s social worker and school counsellor. It was very positive.
Lucy is doing much better at school. She hasn’t cut herself for a long time and the scars are now feint.
She goes on sleepovers again and has an iPhone – with conditions and with the knowledge and permission of her social worker.
Her social worker still visits once a week, but she is cautiously happy with Lucy’s progress. She might even be taken off the Child Protection Register in September – if they are happy that ‘M’ and his gang are not continuing to groom her.
Police, social services, schools, and a lot of local people know who M is and he is watched like a hawk. There are other girls, other families, that are going through this.
I know that, for him, it’s an obsession and he will not stop until he is prosecuted and locked away.
I have made it as difficult as possible for M to get to my daughter, but, sadly, there are still problems.
This afternoon, two of the men whose names are on the list that police gave me, were waiting at Lucy’s school bus stop.
I got held up and was running late.
They followed her into the nearby supermarket. She told a member of staff that she was afraid and they looked after her until I arrived.
I’ve spoken to the police, and they will try and have a squad car at the bus stop tomorrow.
Of course, following a child into a shop, isn’t against the law. Nor is standing at a school bus stop and staring at a child. Nor is whispering obscenities or spitting in her general direction in the street.
It’s just scary as hell for a 12 year old girl.
Lucy is sat on the floor in front of me now, happy and singing, doing her homework.
Every day that she is free of ‘M’ is a victory.
I hug her a lot, tell her I love her and try to make life as normal as possible. I make sure that I’m there for her. Actions speak so much louder than words.
I’m her Dad, and I want to protect her. I don’t let her see me cry and I don’t let her see that I’m scared.
I have no idea what the future holds, but, for today, Dad is winning.”
Please feel free to share this article. It was written to help other parents keep their children safe.
Copyright © 2017 William Henry Prince.