Last week, while 150 Montanans were gathered in Billings for the Justice for Children Conference, federal authorities in North Carolina arrested a man on charges of sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old Helena girl.

Theodore Castine, 53, was detained as the result of an investigation that involved Helena police, the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and FBI agents in North Carolina. According to a report from the Helena Independent Record, authorities say Castine first contacted the girl through her Facebook page nearly two months ago. Later, he threatened to harm her unless she sent him nude photos of herself. After she sent him some photos, he continued to blackmail her by threatening to show the photos to her friends.

Fortunately, the girl reported this predator to a school resource officer, and a criminal investigation began.

If convicted on the felony exploitation charge in U.S. District Court in Montana, Castine would face a mandatory minimum of 15 to 30 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare case. For example:

  • In August, a 27-year-old Billings man was indicted on a charge of persuading a 15-year-old girl in Madison County to take sexually explicit photos of herself and send them to him using Facebook. The criminal investigation started when the girl’s mother called her local sheriff’s department and reported that the man might be traveling to Sheridan, Wyo., to meet her daughter and a 13-year-old girl. The suspect had posed as a 20-year-old man on Facebook. In fact, he was a convicted felon most recently accused of illegal firearm possession.
  • A 21-year-old Lewistown man traveled to Pennsylvania to see a 14-year-old girl he had contacted on the Internet. This suspect, who already had a history of sex crimes, was the subject of a nationwide search in 2009 when the Pennsylvania girl went missing. The former Montana man pleaded guilty last year in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania to felonies, including transportation with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.

“The Internet has increased predator access,” Mike Batista, chief of the state Division of Criminal Investigation, told a group of about 40 people gathered at Montana State University Billings on Tuesday night. “We’ve had a new focus on Internet crimes against children in the past two years.”

The first step in protecting children is building awareness of the risks. Sex offenses against children aren’t new, but technology has added new risks.

Kris Carlson, a police detective from Burlington, Vt., who has been on the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for 11 years, offered these parenting tips to a Billings audience last week:

  • Talk to your teens and children.
  • Educate yourself about the devices and websites.
  • Be aware of how your kids are using their phones, when and for how long.
  • Take their phones and check messages.
  • Use monitoring software.

“You’ve got to ask questions, look for information, know what’s going on,” Carlson said.

Carlson advises teens to think before they post. Even postings that don’t involve malicious intent can cause big problems. When adolescents send a nude or semi-nude cell phone photo of themselves to a girlfriend or boyfriend, that recipient usually sends the photo to other acquaintances. Soon, nearly every student in their school has seen it. There’s no telling who else has the photo and no way to get all copies off the Internet.

Attorney General Steve Bullock, whose office organized the Justice for Children conference, said the state is working to shut down child Internet trafficking. Billings Police Department, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and agencies throughout the state work with the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

As Bullock said: “Montana is safe for families, but we need to be aware of pitfalls.”

Be a parent who looks out for your kids online and off. Talk to them. Check up on them. Keep them safe.