On New Year’s Day, 2002, my 13-year-old daughter, Alicia, was lured from our Pennsylvania home and stolen to Virginia by a man whom she had been introduced to online. For eight months, this sadistic madman masqueraded as her friend, grooming my daughter, restructuring her thought patterns through coercive mind control, and bypassing those core values which her father and I had labored to deeply ingrain. A 38-year-old computer programmer, father to his own 12-year-old daughter, held my little girl captive, chained to the floor by her neck in his basement dungeon as he repeatedly raped and tortured her.
Throughout the entire grooming process, my husband and I were totally clueless, and therefore helpless to circumvent the unfolding tragedy.
Our Lives Before
The night of Alicia’s abduction was blisteringly cold. Outside of our warm family home, redolent of holiday fragrance, the winds raged and whipped snowy ice crystals against the candle-lit windows reflecting our traditional little two-parent two-child family.
It is captured forever in my mind’s eye, this golden moment in time. We were happy, secure–and desperately unprepared for what would follow. To the casual passerby, we would have appeared to be an All-American Norman Rockwell painting, and certainly, that’s what we felt that we were. As with any family, our lives were certainly less than perfection but, to this day, I miss the “us” that we were before January 1, 2002.
Looking back, I treasure my memory of our joined hands; heads bowed in prayer, as we shared those moments we were most thankful for in the year past, and our resolutions for the new.
These were our last moments of grace.
For, in the passage of these ten years, each of us has been irrevocably altered, and our lives overshadowed by the event. One does not survive every parent’s worst nightmare and remain unscathed.
The Nightmare and the Rescue
When Alicia, excusing herself from the dinner table, slipped silently out of our front door and into oblivion, she carried with her the hopes, dreams, and the expectations that for each parent begin the moment our children are born. Hours later, after police reports were made and family members had returned to their own home, we sat curled in terrified misery as through our suddenly silent home, the clock’s tick-tick-ticking counted the seconds of our precious child’s life—and our own—slip-slip-slipping away.
The specialized law enforcement which responded, The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, shared with us in the days that followed that our daughter’s chance of recovery was perhaps a million to one. It would take a miracle…
Nearly hopeless, and brought to our knees us to our knees by grief and exhaustion, we began to do the only thing left to us: we prayed. We prayed for miracles.
And they came.
Days, eternities later, Law Enforcement was able to locate the needle in the haystack that was my daughter, only because the braggart Internet Predator shared Alicia’s abuse and degradation with his fellow pedophilic perverts via streaming online video. Cutting the chains from Alicia’s neck, they returned her to freedom—and to my arms.
Parents Remain Clueless
A decade’s journey behind us, our family has risen from its knees to wage war against online sexual abuse and exploitation. Internet crimes against children have grown exponentially, and no child—or their parents—are safe from these monsters.
When Alicia was lured and abducted, the Internet was in its infancy. Most parents, myself included, knew little to nothing of this new technology that had begun to forever restructure the ways in which humanity would interact with each other. Unbeknownst to parents, schools had begun teaching our children how to surf the net, but were neglecting to teach them how to protect themselves online.
Sadly, today, having presented the Alicia Project Internet Safety and Awareness Program to thousands of children and their parents, we have found that many of them remain as clueless as we were.
This is not acceptable! Parents must educate themselves to the dangers their children are encountering each and every time they set their fingers to the keyboard. The tragedy that Alicia and our family suffered may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but the danger that every child is constantly exposed to every time he or she goes online is no less damaging. The availability of hardcore porn, which incessantly attacks even the innocent and unsuspecting children as they surf the web, desensitizes them and endangers their future ability to maintain decent loving marriages. Indeed, young people have shared with us their Internet addiction as well as their fear that the Internet has led them to prey on younger children.
So, what can parents do? We can do a lot!
The Sexualization of Our Children
First and foremost, we must acknowledge that, through media, our children are being sexualized far beyond their ability to cope with the psychological ramifications. Subsequently, we must cease to hide behind those psychological defense mechanisms that give a false sense of security.
After Alicia’s recovery, the general public chose to believe that we were poor parents and to place the blame on our family rather than on the predator. Thus, they were able to convince themselves that if we were “bad parents” as compared to their ”good” parenting, then their resultant “good child” was safe. But quite the opposite is true.
The web is a level playing field for predators. Every child—yes, your little prince or princess—is vulnerable. Alicia’s abductor initially began the grooming process by simply being her friend and by giving her seemingly unconditional love, something that any responsible parent setting boundaries and enforcing consequences can rarely compete with.
Therefore, as parents we must strive to communicate with our children in an open and honest manner when discussing the Web and its inherent dangers. Despite the discomfiture we may feel when discussing sexually taboo areas with our children, kids need to know that they can confide in us without our becoming judgmental. Predators will use that same fear and shame as coercion.
On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that, as their safety is our responsibility, nothing should be left to chance. Privacy issues are no argument when the need for monitoring software arises. We lock our doors and our liquor cabinets. We surreptitiously sniff their breath for evidence of cigarettes or alcohol. Logically, if we hold them to geographical boundaries and curfews, we should do so on the Internet highway as well. Remember: it’s their home, but it’s our house and our computer. As such, we have the right to monitor usage.
Also, as parents, we must stand and demand effective legislation to keep our children from the hands of predators; especially those which supply funding and resources for the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces, such as Alicia’s namesake, Alicia’s Law. Call your local legislators; ask them what laws they are endorsing to battle child sexual exploitation. Vote accordingly.
All too often I have been asked whether I suffered from feelings of guilt, and my answer has been that I do not. I know that I did everything that I could have to protect Alicia utilizing the information that I had been given at that time.
But I am a mother, and as parents, we are ultimately responsible, aren’t we? I would give anything to have known better, to have saved Alicia from that monster.
Consider this your wake-up call, moms and dads. How will you answer that question?
Mary Kozakiewicz is a member of Team HOPE, dedicated to empowering the families of missing children. She is also a member of the Surviving Parents Coalition, advocating for education and legislation that will help to prevent crimes against children. Along with her husband, Charles, and daughter, Alicia, she has participated in Internet Safety films for both Law Enforcement and the private sector.