I interviewed you on my TV show Inspiring Lives with Dr. Shellie, on Empowering Women Radio, and for my best-selling book trilogy Common Threads. Your story has been told multiple times in a variety of formats. Can you describe our connection and why you feel Inspiring Lives Magazine is the right place to tell your life story?
I met you, Dr. Shellie, while working on the “What Makes Me Feel Safe” poster contest for National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Your assistance was instrumental in making the project a success. Your media platforms uniquely highlight women who are working to create a better world. I am honored to be among them. It is not uncommon for the media to focus on negative news, and your focus on the positive is refreshing.
A decade ago, you were only 13 when you were abducted outside your home by a 38-year-old man from Virginia you met in a Yahoo chat room. Can you describe what you experienced?
I was groomed and lured from my home by an internet predator who kidnapped me and held me captive, chained by the neck in his basement dungeon. For nearly a week I was starved, raped, beaten, and brutally tortured. He shared my degradation live over streaming video. Miraculously, I was rescued, as a viewer was able to recognize the little girl in this horrendous video as the face on my National Center for Missing and Exploited Children missing person poster. Following this tip, the FBI stormed the home where I was being held captive and cut the chain from around my neck and set me free. I am so incredibly blessed!
What was it liked to be rescued and to see your mom and dad again when you thought you were going to be murdered?
My family’s love sustained me throughout my ordeal. I knew that they were searching for me, would never give up, and would move Heaven and Earth to find me. Nevertheless, I was a terrified little girl fighting for my life and afraid that I would never see my family again. The FBI shared that it was a million-to-one shot that I would be recovered safely, as I was in the hands of a vicious predator, but I received a miracle, I was rescued.
Thanks to the kindness of law enforcement, my family and I were reunited in a small airport in Virginia, which allowed us to have a moment of privacy. No words can adequately express the joy I felt when I saw my family again for the first time. If you were to speak to my father about this moment, he would talk about the hug that we shared. In that moment, we knew that the ordeal was over and that I was safe.
How were you treated by the media following your ordeal? Your peers?
The media was hugely instrumental in my recovery, as they had shared my image and information nationally. I am grateful that the media focused on my story while I was missing; however, following my recovery, some members of the media engaged in victim-blaming. As a result, many of the same people who had tied yellow ribbons around neighborhood trees to welcome me home had followed suit. Sadly, this type of “re-victimization” occurs all too often in cases of sexual assault and exploitation. This should never happen, most especially when a child is the victim. As I say in my presentations, if you cannot offer love, support, and kindness—then just keep your distance—this includes commenting online.
Today, I have an excellent working relationship with the media and have been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, BBC, ABC, CBC, Discovery Channel, A&E, and many more. We work hand-in-hand to educate the public and raise awareness of missing persons cases and human trafficking.
What can parents do to protect their children from cyber predators?
I share the following safety tips on my website www.aliciaproject.org:
Any child or teen can become the victim of an internet predator. Predators do not discriminate based on gender, ethnicity, education, socioeconomic status, income, or religion. It can happen. It does happen. It is happening.
Teach your child or teen to never share private or identifying information, such as his or her name, address, school, etc., with a person online that is not known or trusted in real life. A predator can use this information to groom and/or locate your child or teen.
- Strengthen the privacy settings on all social networking sites and ensure that these settings remain unchanged after updates. Social networking sites often publish posts as “public” based on the default settings.
- Disable Geotagging on all mobile devices, as it has the ability to automatically pinpoint and disclose your child’s or teen’s location. This option can usually be found under “Settings” on most devices. You can also contact your service provider or device manufacturer.
- Discuss the dangers of “checking in.” Various applications allow your child or teen to share his or her exact current location on social media sites.
- Remind your child or teen to choose an online handle, username, or screen name carefully. Much can be inferred from how your child or teen represents himself or herself online, which can prompt a predator’s initial contact.
- Monitor your child’s or teen’s activity on the computer and on all mobile devices. This includes desktops, laptops, tablet computers, cell phones, and all handheld and video game devices with online connectivity. Numerous parental monitoring options are available online or through your service provider. Please, do not feel that you are “spying” on your child or teen. You are the parent. This is your responsibility.
- Know the passwords on all devices used by your child or teen. Check them regularly.
- If you suspect your child or teen is being cyber-bullied, be supportive, get the facts, and if necessary, contact the school or law enforcement. Conversely, teach your child or teen about the negative consequences for those who cyberbully.
- Many children and teens engage in sexting. This is the sharing of explicit texts/photos between phones or other devices. Sending and/or receiving nude pictures of minors is considered child pornography. As a result, there may be both emotional and legal consequences for you and your child or teen.
- Educate yourself on the mobile applications that your child or teen is using. Ask for an explanation and a demonstration.
- Maintain loving, open, and respectful lines of communication with your child or teen while setting enforceable rules for online safety. Assure your child or teen that he or she can always come to you for help in an uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situation.
If you think your child or teen is being groomed, harassed, threatened, or exploited online, you should immediately report this activity to your local law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cybertipline.
IT CAN HAPPEN. IT DOES HAPPEN.
What is The Alicia Project and Alicia’s Law?
Following my rescue and a period of healing, I realized that any child could fall victim to an internet predator and that many children were engaging in dangerous behaviors online. Internet safety was not yet being taught in schools, and parents did not have the tools to educate or protect their children. At the age of 14, I created The Alicia Project and began sharing the story of my ordeal in schools as a means to educate other children. I soon found myself speaking to parents, teachers, law enforcement, conferences, and corporations and on many media platforms. Coming full circle, I have had the honor of training the FBI on the processes of abduction, survival, recovery, and aftermath.
We all must work together to keep children safe from predators online and off. Sharing my story has been hugely helpful in my healing process by giving this traumatic experience a greater purpose. I know that my effort has saved lives, and my goal has always been that if I can save one life, one person from going through what I have, then it is entirely worth it.
Alicia’s Law, my namesake, funds the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces (ICAC) by creating a dedicated revenue stream state-by-state. These funds provide training, boots on the ground, equipment, etc. to enable law enforcement to protect and rescue children. I am proud to say that Alicia’s Law has passed in 11 states, and together with the National Association to Protect Children (www.protect.org), we are diligently working to secure its passage in all 50 states.
How did you fall in love and learn to trust after what you went through?
I am often asked by audiences and the media, “How can you trust others after something like this happens?” After a traumatic experience, it is not uncommon for a survivor to view the world as a dark place. I have learned that although there is evil in this world, many good people are also fighting against it daily.
You must first learn to trust your ability to make good decisions. As it pertains to romantic relationships, it can be extraordinarily difficult to trust others openly after a sexually traumatic experience. Earning trust can be a gradual process, and it is perfectly okay to take it slowly. A worthy partner will allow you that time.
I am jubilant to share that I was lucky to find not only the man of my dreams, but a partner who supports them. We will celebrate our first wedding anniversary in July.
What are you doing for work currently? And describe how you are stepping into the acting and modeling world.
This past July, I graduated with a master’s in forensic psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (Chicago, Ill.). My education has given me insight beyond experience, which I have been able to use to aid survivors in their recovery process. Ironically, better understanding my own recovery process has allowed me to realize and be comfortable with the fact that I have goals beyond my mission.
I have recently acknowledged that I have both a mission and a passion. Through motivational speaking and television appearances, I have discovered my passion for both film and television acting. Recently, I have decided to pursue this new path. It is not necessarily for me to rebrand myself, but rather I view this as an opportunity to expand myself, to incorporate the woman I might have been with the woman I have become. I love to move people emotionally. I love to entertain, to make people laugh, ponder, cry, and feel pride and to motivate them. I have started taking steps on this new journey, and I love every minute of it!
To schedule an Alicia Project presentation or a motivational presentation: www.aliciaproject.org/contact.