Child predators & citizen cops: part two

Where are the limits to the rights of self-protection? Has the internet’s ability to make instant connections also created instant-cops who can go too far?

Earlier today I posted a story about a suspected predator in my local San Francisco park who turned out to be an innocent man — but only after his photo and suspicions of his being a predator had circulated widely on the internet and local TV, thanks to a campaign started by an anxious mom. She had spotted him near the playground, unaccompanied by a child.

Several readers have weighed in off-site to say I should have more sympathy for the mom, because she was only protecting her child and others. Maybe.

Years ago, when my own children were growing up in an urban area comparable in potential lurking dangers to San Francisco today, there was a man who appeared around elementary schools over a period of months, exposing himself to little girls. He became fairly famous among teachers, parents and children as “the man in the white car”, though he always managed to elude the police.

One afternoon when my then 7-year-old daughter was walking home alone (the school was about 3 blocks distant and the times were not quite so parentally protective) a white car pulled alongside her, stopped just ahead and the passenger-side door opened. But about a half block away was my 9-year-old son, lagging an appropriate distance behind.  He sped up, taking a pencil out of his pocket and calling his sister’s name, which was enough to cause the white car to scratch off — but not before they had written down his license number. Extraordinary children, of course, as they are mine, but to be truthful every kid in town had been so thoroughly trained in what to do it was practically a reflex reaction.

The man lived about a mile away. The police paid several calls on him. Because he had not been actually caught doing anything, and it had been over six months since the last episode, involving a child who couldn’t give any description, he was not accused of anything. But the police knew where he lived (as did I, since they drove my son by the house to reconfirm it was the car) and he knew they knew, and he knew his license number was in a file of some sort that could be easily found. That was the last episode involving the man in the white car and local schools.

Could he have gone on to frighten, and possibly molest, other children? Probably. Should we have painted a red “X” on his door, or taken his picture and put it up in the post office? I don’t think so. Plenty of phone calls flew back and forth, but there were no cellphone cameras or e-mails or internet sites at the time so the net was not cast quite as wide. And nobody called the TV station.

I am still pretty sure the man in the white car was a bad guy. We now know the man in the neighborhood park was not. In either case, there’s that business of being innocent until proven guilty. Trial by internet can mess with the system, which while imperfect is still the best we’ve got.

Oh Yayy! A new social network! Togetherville targets 6 to 10-year-olds

First and second-graders, even third-graders who haven’t gotten to be Facebook regulars yet, can now Have Fun Online Together and Share Proud Moments With Friends through their Togetherville social network accounts.

“What we want to do is build good digital citizens,” says Togetherville founder and CEO Mandeep Dhillon.

God help us.

With the brewing controversies about Facebook and privacy, not to mention news stories about the dangers of cyberabuse, the last thing parents might want to do is let their children get into online social networking.

But Togetherville Inc., a Palo Alto startup that finished a test run last week, hopes to alleviate those fears with a social-networking service tailored to children ages 6 through 10.

The free service creates a secure network that gives children access to the benefits of social networking while giving parents oversight to make sure their kids are shielded from potential dangers until they are old enough to handle the Web.

No offense to Dhillon and his investors, but are we really ready to offer up a new generation to be “shielded from potential dangers…” by the operators of a social network while they are having fun sitting in front of a small screen all day sharing proud moments with their friends? Did Alice just fall down the rabbit hole?

On Togetherville, no one who is not authorized by the parent can contact the child. Nor can anyone outside the network gain access to a child’s information or postings, including through search engines.

There are adult Facebook members who are pressing for that same level of privacy. Parents create the account using their Facebook login information, but the Togetherville site operates in a separate world outside of Facebook.

However, children can exchange text messages with other friends in their Togetherville “neighborhood” and with authorized grown-ups through Facebook Connect. The text comes from a pre-written selection of “quips” like “Cool,” “Random” and “What planet are you from?”

The kids can create digital greeting cards, play games and watch approved video. But they can’t share links to outside sites or, for now at least, photos.

Dhillon said the company is working on generating revenue by buying and sharing virtual goods.

It is not Dhillon’s fault, I suppose, that Togetherville is launching into the world at a time when faith in Facebook is not exactly on an all-time high. If there are parents of 6- to 10-year-olds ready to believe that their children can be shielded from potential dangers once tethered to Togetherville, they must surely have spent the past few years in Wonderland with Alice.

Social networks unquestionably have benefits. Just don’t try to convince people right now that those benefits come without perils and frustrations. If they are shielded from dangers, are 6-year-olds ready for the frustrations? For instance. A few months ago, Facebook decided it didn’t want me to have access to my Friends any more. Oh, they can send me messages, and presumably if they haven’t hidden me they get my status updates. I get a few of their status updates too. I just can no longer access my Friend list because it has disappeared somewhere. Have you ever tried to find a real person involved with Facebook? The people behind the software are utterly unreachable.

This is the world to which 6- to 10-year olds will now be introduced. Fully shielded from danger, their parents are told…

Social-networking site Togetherville is designed for youngsters ages 6 to 10.

Russian orphan Artyom, & another orphan story

Artyom and Vasya came from the same part of the globe as adoptive Americans — but the similarities end right about there. This is a personal perspective on another, happier-ending orphan story.

Seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev found himself at the center of an international incident recently, after being put on a plane by himself, with a one-way ticket back to Moscow and a note from his adoptive mother, 33-year-old Torry Hansen. “I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself,” the letter said, “I no longer wish to parent this child. As he is a Russian national, I am returning him to your guardianship.”

She also said, “He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues”

Russian authorities were outraged, and suspended adoptions of Russian children. Some of the mom-for-a-year’s neighbors in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and many others who knew nothing more than what was reported in sound bites, were quick to condemn Torry Hansen and, in at least one instance, to say she deserved to go to jail. Investigations are ongoing.

Seventeen-year-old Vasya is the grandson of my friend Sally, who sent an e-mail today reminding everyone that there are not only two sides to every adoptive story, but some stories with hard-won happy endings. I’ve been following Vasya’s saga, via Sally’s e-mails, for over four years. There were two years (or perhaps a little more) of agonizing struggles with the red tape of the Ukranian government before Vasya finally arrived in the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 14, speaking no English and having an education at 5th grade level.

As reported today by his grandmother, Vasya is now fluent in English, finishing 9th grade in a private school, playing outstanding soccer, “an outgoing kid so proud of his newly-acquired driver’s license, a nice looking young man with a great personality. He is also an American citizen.”

All this, Vasya’s family emphasizes, “did not come about quickly, easily or smoothly.” They want others to know that adoptive families, as well as adopted children from abroad, can use a lot of support.

What about the future of adoptions of Russian children, currently on hold for U.S. citizens? The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a membership-based advocacy organization, reported today,

The Department of State has received no information to confirm a suspension of adoptions from Russia to the United States.  Our Embassy in Moscow and other Department of State officials are talking with Russian officials to clarify this issue.

The Department of State is sending a high-level inter-agency team to Russia this weekend to meet with senior Russian officials, including officials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Justice.  The U.S. delegation will emphasize the importance of this issue to the United States, and will discuss our mutual concerns about how to better protect the welfare and rights of children and all parties involved in intercountry adoptions.

Many thousands of Russian children have found loving, safe and permanent homes in the United States through intercountry adoption.   Families in the United States have adopted more than 50,000 children from Russia.

The good news is, despite governmental red tape and countless hurdles, there are far more Vasyas than Artyoms. Maybe Russia will remember that.