"If Amanda does not stay off the Internet and/or take steps to protect herself online, there is only so much we as the police can do."
-- Coquitlam RCMP email to Carol Todd in 2011
Amanda Todd took her life in 2012 at the age of 15 after being relentlessly blackmailed by a ruthless predator. She deserved a more informed and effective police response than what was offered. She deserved to feel protected. So do all the Canadian kids who are being blackmailed or lured into performing sexual acts on webcam right now.
The sexual extortion of children and teens is not "bullying" or kid stuff, but a dangerously malevolent new menace. Online sexual blackmail of children and youth has reached a staggering pace. British authorities estimate thousands of UK children and teens have been targeted, and seven suicides like Amanda's have been attributed to the phenomenon.
Yet these cases can be solved within days or weeks using proper investigative techniques. In recent years, the UK's CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) division has successfully made an arrest within one week in all 12 reported extortion complaints they've received.
Last week, B.C. Crown Counsel charged 35-year-old Aydin Cobin of the Netherlands in connection with the Amanda Todd case. Reports indicate Cobin had as many as 100 other blackmail victims, including 10 in Canada.
Cobin is typical of the new offender profile: a technologically adept adult concurrently targeting dozens or hundreds of teens and children. For instance, just three individuals, Mark Bedford of Ontario, Matthew Leonard and Francis Knight of the UK extorted and lured well over 500 kids as young as nine into webcam sexual acts.
Sometimes the online connection escalates to direct contact. Police have documented many cases of rape or even murder stemming from anonymous contact with youth on social media.
While Coquitlam RCMP framed the arrest of a suspect in the Todd case as a victory, their investigation appears remarkably anomalous. For reasons we don't yet know, the Coquitlam RCMP departed from the tried and true practice of taking over the complainant's social media accounts and engaging the perpetrator directly.
By way of comparison, CTV's W5 reports that in the winter of 2010/11, when the Coquitlam RCMP learned a predator was blackmailing Amanda Todd, a family in Ontario also reported their 12 year-old son, "Eric N," was being targeted online.
While Amanda was advised to get off social media in B.C., Det. Randy Norton of the Integrated Child Exploitation (ICE) unit took over Eric's accounts in Ontario. Assuming Eric's identity, the detective began chatting directly with his predator.
When Amanda's blackmailer returned in the spring of 2011 to threaten her again, Eric's attacker was being arrested in Ontario. Astonishingly, he was Eric's former teacher, Stephen Martin, who was simultaneously stalking and victimizing 10 other students. In Martin's home, police found a cache of 9,500 images and 2,000 videos of child sexual exploitation with untold numbers of victims.
By December 2011, Martin was already tried, convicted and imprisoned, while in B.C. the Todd investigation stagnated. Responding to desperate entreaties by mom Carol Todd, a frustrated investigating officer emailed back: "I would highly recommend that Amanda close all her email and Facebook accounts at this time."
But cutting off Internet access cold turkey does little, according to experts. Det. Sgt. Frank Goldschmidt of Ontario's ICE unit told CBC's The Fifth Estate, "It doesn't take long for the offender to re-establish contact through other means."
It appears the officers investigating Amanda's extortion may have been unaware that the matter could be referred to the ICE unit. Indeed, the file was not elevated to major crime status until Amanda took her own life and her video achieved international prominence.
How might Amanda's experience have been different? Eric N and his mother tell us. "From day one, Det. Norton was there for me and my family constantly," he says, "Once the police were involved I never felt unprotected."
Eric's mother Shea agrees, "It's just alarming to think of B.C. police not doing what Det. Norton did for us. Carol Todd lost her daughter, and I have my son."
It's imperative that Canadian and British Columbian law enforcement agencies review the Amanda Todd investigation for lessons learned, and develop a uniform national police response to online sexual extortion and luring. No child, and no family should ever again be left so helpless against a devastating assault.
The key message from police should not be that they are powerless to help a child -- but precisely the opposite.
THIS is the message the RCMP needs to send to kids and families:
"IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS BEING BLACKMAILED, LURED OR THREATENED ONLINE, YOU ARE IN DANGER -- REPORT IT TO THE POLICE.
WE CAN STOP IT FAST."
Sandy Garossino and Raffi Cavoukian are members of the Red Hood Project, a movement for greater online security for children and youth. Senior policing experts advised on this article. Raffi Cavoukian's recent book, Lightweb Darkweb, is dedicated to Amanda Todd
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated Amanda Todd died at 16