Online child exploitation on the rise: Awareness efforts continue

Local News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — On a typical year in the month of May, hundreds of cyclists would ride 100 miles across the state to stop at schools and raise awareness for missing and exploited children. The ride started in the ’90s in honor of Sara Anne Wood, who was abducted while walking her bike in Utica.

Because of the pandemic, The Ride for Missing Children was canceled for the second year in a row. Instead, a smaller group of cyclists is biking from Buffalo to Albany this week, without stopping at any schools along the way.

Replacing the traditional ride as it was, they’re hosting “Miles for Hope” in September. It’ll be a month-long virtual event where everyone can get involved. People can participate in any way they want, getting active and learning about missing and exploited children along the way.

On Tuesday at Onondaga Lake Park, the cyclists stopped to honor the Chain of Awareness at the park before making their way to Utica. It features all 200-plus children missing in New York State.

“The importance of the ride for missing children, raising awareness about the plight of missing and exploited kids, and spreading safety messages doesn’t end,” said Ed Suk, the Executive Director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children New York Regional Office.

Actually, those safety messages are getting louder, because the pandemic has put more kids at risk of exploitation.

“Online enticement went up 97.5% in our reporting. And that’s a direct result of kids being at home, isolated, and spending a lot more time online,” Suk said.

The organization is doing what it can to get its messaging out there. With the many challenges brought on by the pandemic, they hoped putting the chain of awareness near the playground at the park would get through to families and children they haven’t been in contact with over the past year.

“We do that really in the hopes of bringing kids home. We’re very proud that the organization, since its beginning, has brought home over 8,500 children through the use of those posters,” said Jim Sleeper, Chairman for the Syracuse Ride for Missing Children.

But Sleeper and his peers hope that they can get through to children and families before they’re in any danger. They continue to offer free seminars and resources through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It includes tips for parents on how to spark the conversation with their kids.

“If the communication is solid with their adults in their lives or trusted adults and they know that they can come and talk to them, and they know what they might expect, it’s a great way to make them safer,” Suk said.

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