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Montana youth attend presentation on sextortion

Great Falls youth attend presentation on sextortion
Posted at 8:28 AM, Mar 01, 2024

GREAT FALLS — The Federal Bureau of Investigation says sextortion is a growing threat to the nation’s teens. Sextortion is when an adult solicits or entices a minor to share explicit photos or video, and then threatens to post the material online. In January this year, federal law enforcement received more than 13,000 reports of online sextortion of minors between October 2021 and March of 2023.

Sextortion victims are predominantly boys between the ages of 14 and 17. The crime can go beyond the financial damage to a family. The FBI says it has linked at least 20 suicides to sextortion.

On Thursday at the Alliance for Youth in Great Falls, a group of peer mentors from Great Falls middle and high schools gathered for a presentation on sextortion. John Kaleczyc, an investigator with the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation presented startling numbers and heartbreaking stories.

“They're living it. Their peers are experiencing it. They're seeing these images traded when they're at school, when they're at home,” said Kaleczyc. “So, I think it really is an issue that resonates with them.”

“It's not something that just occurs in other places, and it's not something that's not happening. It's happening in your home. It's happening to your kids and it's happening to people in our school,” said Madelyn Hart, a sophomore student and peer mentor at Great Falls High. “And I think it's really important that we spread awareness about that and let those kids know that it's okay to ask for help.”

According to the Montana Department of Justice, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of cases in recent years. In 2022, ICAC agents received 1,500 tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an 80% increase over 2021. The numbers could be even higher.

“But it's also a number that we can't really put our finger on, or we can't quantify because like so many sex related crimes that are so underreported, it's harder to gauge a true or accurate number,” said Kaleczyc.

The 2023 Montana Legislature added more support for the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. While that’s helping make a difference, Attorney General Austin Knudsen says the best defense is prevention and education.
“It's kids having the tools to know what this is, to spot the red flags, to know they're being targeted probably by a predator. That it really isn't that cute girl in that profile picture that they're seeing,” said Knudsen.

Great Falls youth attend presentation on sextortion
Great Falls youth attend presentation on sextortion

Knudsen says it’s important for parents to be aware of their kid's online activity and don’t be afraid to talk to them.

Hart says sextortion is an issue in Great Falls schools and while it can be tough for kids to talk to parents, simple acts by fellow students can make a big difference.

“I think just talking to people, checking in on your classmates, there are signs of people's behavior changes,” said Hart. “If their grades drop, if they start acting different, take notice and just take a little bit of time out of your day to help them feel a little bit better. Sit with them, talk with them, ask them if something is wrong.”

Knudsen says sextortion can have a devastating effect on mental health, in some cases, even in Montana, leading to suicide.
“When you've got young minds, young emotions, those emotions are raging,” said Knudsen. “There's a ton of shame that comes along with that. And a lot of times these kids don't see a way out.”

“Sextortion is not something that is your fault,” said Hart. “Just because you put it out there does not mean you take full responsibility for that. They are very much in the wrong and you deserve to be treated like a human and you deserve respect from other people.”

Kaleczyc says he’s happy to take the presentation to anyone who wants to hear it. He also likes to give the presentation to parents.

“The kids probably have had at least some sort of internet safety training and parents typically haven't had any. So they're in some ways the real audience I wish we could reach,” said Kaleczyc.

The Alliance For Youth offers resources to parents to talk to their children about sextortion. To report sextortion, they encourage calling Great Falls Police at 406-727-7688 or the FBI at 801-579-1400.

The Montana Department of Justice has links on how to get help as well as presentations and helpful resources by clicking here.

Great Falls youth attend presentation on sextortion