Saturday, 13 September 2008

When a policeman becomes a predator

IT WAS late one Friday afternoon last year when Michelle Adams* took a call on her mobile that would change her life.

Two Australian Federal Police officers wanted to see her urgently. Meet them at 6pm at the domestic terminal at Sydney Airport. No arguments. Bring your husband.

"I felt very, very sick. I had been burning a ballet DVD for my daughter's upcoming dance exams and I thought Big Brother had caught me."

But Adams's life was about to become a dance of a much darker kind. Photos and videos of her 10-year-old daughter, Megan, had been found on international child pornography websites, traded between pedophiles in the United States and discussed in chatrooms.

The nine photos, spread out by the officers, showed Megan, a happy, exuberant year 5 student, washing the car in a bikini, bouncing on a trampoline in her school uniform, and playing at the beach.

The photos had been cropped to focus on her crotch and chest, but Adams recognised the swimming costume and a freckle on Megan's upper thigh.

All of the pictures, plus videos of Megan undressing and showering, had been posted on the internet by one of Adams's most trusted friends, a police officer with a wife and young daughter, who played regularly with Megan.

The general duties constable had been arrested a fortnight earlier and granted bail, Adams was told.

He was charged with three counts of using the internet to transmit child pornography, after police found at his home 4900 photos and 204 videos of children as young as two simulating or performing sexual acts.

A bag of women's clothes, which he used in some of his sexual fantasies, was found in his locker at the police station, the court heard.

The child protection unit at the Sydney Children's Hospital, at Randwick, where Adams and her family were counselled, sees more than 760 children a year, some sexually abused, others neglected, beaten or poisoned.

Only two cases have involved internet pornography, but staff fear this number will rise.

"People have to be vigilant about the photos they post on sites like MySpace and Facebook because the reality is that offenders will often use innocent photos and manipulate them in ways to get sexual gratification," says a social worker, Bernadette Walsh.

Many parents were also unaware that perpetrators were often family members or friends, well known to the child, she said.

"We caution children about stranger danger all the time and yet the vast majority of offenders are people within the family or known to the family and we don't give children the skills to talk about that."

The co-head of the child protection unit at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Robyn Lamb, said staff had seen a surge in the number of children who were victims of internet pornography, including a recent case where a mother posted sexualised photos of her children on American child porn sites.

"We get quite a few cases where children have been coerced in chatrooms by people who they thought were of a similar age. These [perpetrators] are very clever - they know how to pick the vulnerable ones and gain their trust."

She said her unit had about 1200 referrals a year, and about half were victims of sexual abuse.

In the Adams case, the police officer had been trading explicit images of prepubescent girls for years, but had recently told an undercover FBI agent in a chatroom he had been planning to drug and rape Megan, but lost his nerve at the last moment. He had asked the agent if the act would have given him "a buzz".

"I remember driving home and feeling very numb. [My husband] David and I did not speak a word to each other," Adams says.

"I had seen [the officer] in that fortnight after he was arrested. We'd had coffee and he'd been quiet but he didn't mention anything was wrong. His wife had even been asking to have Megan for a play and a sleepover.

"I used to think what a great husband and father he was. Any time he came to dinner at our place he always made a sweet, and he used to do the cleaning and his own ironing and look after [his daughter] Charlotte all the time, and certainly do some fun things with her. They always invited Megan," Adams says.

"There were times when Megan didn't want to go and play with her and I'd say, 'Don't be mean. She's an only child and she's just looking for a good friend.' "

Adams's eyes fill with tears as she recalls this. "My head is spinning when I think about that."

She now knows that the officer was grooming Megan, buying her gifts and treats, and ingratiating himself with Adams, by regularly asking her out for coffee and involving himself in her family's activities.

The bubbly primary school student has never spoken of being molested by him, and seems oblivious to the sexual agenda of his photo collection, but Adams is still gripped with fear that she may have been assaulted without her knowledge.

"We were very nervous about what may have been done to her but I didn't want to frighten her by asking. She knew nothing about sex and I was worried that he may have told her he had a gun and he'd use it on her or us if she told anyone. It could have terrified her if I probed too much," Adams says.

Megan was never medically assessed for sexual assault because the examination must be done within 72 hours of the encounter and the results are notoriously unreliable, but Department of Community Services officers assured Adams her daughter did not exhibit any behavioural signs indicative of molestation, such as repeatedly touching her genitals or acting in a flirtatious manner.

"Megan told me that he gave her a Panadol once for no reason. I think he was testing the waters. He had some extraordinarily strong painkillers at his house and I think he was seeing if Megan could trust him enough to take a pill from him, and if she could swallow a pill," Adams says.

"I did take one last phone call from his wife. I was feeling very angry so I was not a very nice person towards her. [I asked her if she had] any idea what he was up to and her answer was no but that about five years earlier she had caught him with a disc of pornography and he promised her he would never do it again."

The police officer was sentenced to three years and three months in jail, to be served in protection at Grafton. He may be out on parole in August 2010, but Adams's face crumbles when she contemplates his release.

"I don't know what we'll do. Part of me wants to write a letter to all his neighbours telling them what he's done but that's because I'm still angry. Really, I think my goal now is to focus on my family. We need to look after ourselves and heal. The person I feel most sorry for is Charlotte. She is a lovely kid, a really nice little girl, and I feel for her because she's just an innocent person in a very mixed-up family."

Stop Looking * Names have been changed.

Quote: The offender should have been named in this article or else others may be targeted by this person without knowing it.

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