RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - One-and-a-half billion users are on Facebook every day. And among those profiles are people who are not allowed to be on the platform, according to Facebook.
Those are people like 56-year-old Robert Gale Wojda, of Richmond’s Northside. Wojda has been convicted of child exploitation offenses in Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
“Part of his probation was that he was no supposed to be on social media of any kinds, whatsoever," said Richmond Police detective Mary Gary Ford. And yet there he was using Facebook to engage in sexually explicit conversations with minors. “Thankfully his probation officer just checked and she found a Facebook profile for him with his photo and you could tell he was actively like posts."
According to Ford, court filings and the Virginia Attorney General’s office, Wojda admitted to sending explicit photographs through Facebook. Ford actually spoke with Wojda and got his consent to search his phone. On it she found sexual conversations with a 14-year-old girl in Georgia.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her and she was isolated and alone and kind of containing all this inside herself for along time,” added Ford. She says Wodja is far from the only predator using social media.
“The frightening part is the number of people doing what they’re doing and that’s just what’s being reported,” said Ford.
Facebook has a specific policy that bans convicted sex offenders, but in less than two hours NBC12′s investigation easily tracked down 16 different registered sex offenders in Virginia with what appeared to be active Facebook profiles. NBC12 only searched halfway through the letter "c" in the alphabet on the sex offender registry.
NBC12 found offenders of all races and of varying ages all with profiles active within the last year. Some of their criminal records included labels like “sexually violent offender.”
The investigation found offenders convicted of “rape” in Henrico County. Others convicted of “carnal knowledge of children as young as 13” and even a person accused of “enticing a minor to perform in pornography.”
Facebook immediately launched an investigation and disabled the accounts after NBC12 reported the findings.
A spokesperson said, “Facebook’s Terms of Service explain that we prohibit convicted sex offenders from using Facebook and disable accounts that violate this policy as soon as we’re aware. We respond to reports from our community but also take action and disable these accounts when we identify them ourselves. We disabled the accounts you shared as soon as we confirmed they were in violation of our terms of service.”
“You never know who you’re talking to on the other side of the computer,” said Briana Valentino, a forensic interviewer with Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now). “Kids are very accessible to people who mean do them harm.”
She often interviews the children abused by predators. And more often than ever before, she finds the abuse started online.
“What we tend to see for kids who’s experienced trauma online, it’s a lot of internalized behavior. Feelings of guilt, feelings of shame. That they are the one’s that have done something wrong,” said Valentino.
Ford often works with SCAN and is investigating multiple active cases in Central Virginia. She has the unenviable job of talking to child predators like Wojda.
“He indicated that looking at adult pornography just doesn’t do it for him," Ford said.
Wodja ultimately pleaded no contest to electronic solicitation of a minor and is now serving 20 years in a Virginia prison. His capture is a victory for investigators like Detective Ford.
But she knows there are more predators out there. That’s why she needs parents to help and have age-appropriate, non-judgmental conversations with their children and teens.
“They this is something that could happen. If it does, just stop what you’re doing, come to me. Talk to me. we’ll work it out together. You’re not in trouble," said Ford.
Ford says there are steps you can take to be proactive.
First, don’t let children have their phones in their bedrooms at night. And consider this rule: tablets and computers should only be used in open areas of the house.
Also parents should research and know the apps that are out there and what’s currently popular with teens.
To report a sex offender on Facebook click on this link. The site says you’ll need to provide one of the following types of information with your report:
- A link to a listing in a national or state sex offender registry.
- A link to an online news article.
- A link to a court document.