A mother sought an emergency court order to prevent her vulnerable daughter travelling overseas and downloaded spyware on the child’s phone. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
A desperate foster mum turned amateur detective to catch a child sex offender who tried to lure her teenage daughter overseas.
The mother sought an emergency court order to prevent her daughter travelling to Australia. She also loaded spyware on the girl’s phone to record the pair’s online conversations and helped international police secure the predator’s arrest.
The Auckland woman says she was forced take action because the agency tasked with her daughter’s care and protection – Oranga Tamariki (OT) – failed to act, claiming the troubled 16-year-old was responsible for her own decisions.
The mother believes her actions prevented the girl from being abused by a dangerous sex offender. She is speaking out in a bid to protect other vulnerable young people from online grooming and child sexual exploitation.
“I had reported to them that she was being groomed by an online predator. I would have thought they would have been legally and morally obliged to act.
“She was a vulnerable young person and the Ministry for Children should have ultimate responsibility for the welfare of these children.”
OT – which had custody of the girl at the time and legal responsibly for her safety – has defended its handling of the case, saying it takes concerns about child welfare seriously.
The foster mother took legal guardianship of the girl after she was removed from her birth parents at a young age due to neglect and abuse.
But, she later placed the girl back in OT care due to serious behavioural problems, violence and suicide attempts stemming from post traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, suspected fetal alcohol syndrome effects, anxiety and depression.
The daughter had been sexually groomed in the past, accessing websites where she was contacted by men wanting to act out sexual fantasies on webcam.
The teenage school dropout was living with an OT carer and enrolled in a tertiary education course in preparation for leaving OT custody once she turned 18.
However those plans were abandoned after an older man who she’d only met online offered to fly her to Australia to start a new life with him.
The mother – who cannot be named to protect her daughter’s anonymity – learned of the plans just weeks out from the girl’s departure date.
The mother then confronted the man by phone.
“I said, ‘I’d like to know what a 28-year-old man is doing asking a 16-year-old girl to come live with him in Australia’.
“I said, ‘I want you to know that if anything happens to my daughter I will hunt you down’.”
Terrified for her child’s safety, the mother urged her daughter to reconsider, but says the teen – who requires regular medication to control her erratic behaviour – had become “brainwashed” by the man.
The mother says she then begged OT to intervene.
She asked the agency to seek a court order to stop the girl from travelling overseas on a one-way ticket bought for her by strangers to live with a much older man she had only met online.
“I knew in my bones that he was a predator but I had no proof,” the mother told the Weekend Herald.
Despite her pleas, the child welfare agency refused to help, citing the daughter’s age and fledgling independence, the mother said.
“I described the many risks and red flags and how dangerous it was. Their legal department said there was no way a judge would give an order to keep her in the country when she was 16.”
A cache of documents obtained by the Herald detail the incredible lengths she went to to protect her daughter.
Still oblivious to the man’s criminal background, the mum hired a lawyer and successfully sought her own emergency Family Court order preventing the daughter from leaving the country.
It was backed by a psychologist who agreed the daughter’s life could be at risk if she travelled to meet the man due to her vulnerability.
Despite OT’s stance, a judge granted the order under urgency just a day after receiving the application, stating the daughter’s welfare “must be the primary focus”.
The tenacious mother also set about a covert scheme which ultimately caught out a paedophile.
She loaded spyware on the girl’s phone to capture her conversations with the man then took screen shots of her daughter’s semi-naked, sexualised messages – where the man told the girl she looked “great or sexy” – and presented them to police.
“They said, ‘Yes, there’s a case to answer. But we need her phone’.”
The phone was useless without the necessary security code. It was only when the mother convinced her daughter to hand over her password that police were able to clone the device and gain access to the man’s bank account details.
They showed he had purchased a one-way airfare in the girl’s name and police were able to swoop.
“That was when they really had the evidence.”
The man was Tony Steven Atkins, now aged 31, who had been jailed for three years in 2011 in South Australia for sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl.
Sentencing notes show he admitted two charges of sexual intercourse with a minor – each carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The judge said the law was designed to “protect children from sexual predators” like Atkins.
Parole conditions imposed after his release prohibited Atkins from communicating with children without reporting those communications to officials. His secret, sexualised messages to the 16-year-old Auckland girl were a criminal breach of those conditions under Australian law.
After receiving the mother’s evidence, New Zealand police in a specialised anti child exploitation taskforce contacted their counterparts in Australia, who commenced their own investigation into Atkins.
They went on to arrest him and informed the mother that Atkins was a convicted child sex offender.
She also learned Atkins had been preparing to travel to New Zealand to meet her daughter.
Court records obtained by the Weekend Herald show Atkins was charged with three counts of failing to comply with reporting obligations, two of possessing child abuse files, and four of producing child exploitation material. He was jailed for two years and eight months.
A series of emails between the mother and South Australian detectives reveal that Atkins had been communicating with “lots of girls other than [the daughter]”.
Detectives described Atkins as “manipulative” but reassured the mother he no longer had access to Facebook behind bars.
An email from a lawyer appointed to represent the daughter says she had been in the care of OT’s chief executive at the time.
The lawyer said he was concerned the chief executive had not made the emergency court order to protect the girl “given the duties and obligations” it was under.
However, a social work report prepared for the Family Court by OT about the case says the agency believed the emergency application was “best made” by the girl’s mother as sole guardian.
“It was also the ministry’s position that because of her age and because she was no longer in our custody, we could not stop her going to Australia. Neither were we willing to actively support her going and our plan was to have a safety plan in place should she go.”
Though the mother is adamant OT knew the “friends” her daughter were going to meet were only online acquaintances, the report denies this.
It says officials only learned this fact at a family group conference weeks before she was due to travel. But by this time the girl “was not responsive to attempts to warn her of the risks of online relationships” and determined to proceed with the trip.
The mother’s emergency order to protect the girl was granted later that day.
She has since returned to her mother’s custody and is no longer in contact with Atkins.
In a statement, OT Auckland regional manager Anna Palmer said OT took any concerns about the wellbeing of a young person seriously.
She said the agency raised concerns several times about the daughter’s overseas travel plans.
“The guardian had the legal ability to apply for a Family Court Order preventing the planned travel. The application to the court was not an initiative that Oranga Tamariki disagreed with.”
Palmer said OT was not aware of “some of the specific details of the concerns” raised by the mother until recently.
She declined to provide further information, citing privacy.